Tuesday, March 26, 2024

Anti-trans bullying is deadly

 Anti-trans bullying is deadly

Ted Miller

(originally published in Tumbleweird April 20240

Bullying among students has been going on since kids were first put together in classrooms. And those perceived as different are often the target of the most severe and sustained bullying, which studies show can have long-lasting negative impacts on mental, physical, and emotional well-being. Washington State enacted strong anti-bullying legislation in 2003 (The Anti-Harassment, Intimidation, and Bullying Act), but bullying is still far too prevalent. And it is particularly a problem for LGBTQ students.

If you or someone you know is experiencing thoughts of self-harm or suicide, or if you are being bullied because of your gender identity or sexual orientation, call or text 988, or reach out to The Trevor Project 24/7 at 1-866-488-7386, via chat at TheTrevorProject.org/Get-Help, or by texting START to 678678.

Students in many other states have it even worse. In the past several years, hundreds of anti-LGBTQ bills have been introduced in state legislatures and local governments. Many of those bills are now law, and other anti-LGBTQ policies have been enacted through executive order. School boards are removing gender-inclusive curriculum and banning discussion of LGBTQ history. Students with gay or transgender parents and family members are prevented from seeing their families reflected in books and course materials. Is it any wonder that bullying and violence against the LGBTQ community has gotten worse?

Washington Post analysis of FBI data published March 12 showed that in the 28 states where anti-LGBTQ laws have taken effect, hate crimes on K-12 campuses have more than quadrupled. Calls to the Trevor Project increased from about 230,000 in 2022 to over 500,000 last year. 

Lance Preston of The Rainbow Youth Project told the Post, “Young people will say `My government hates me,’ ‘My school hates me,’ `They don’t want me to exist.’” 

That’s the message these laws send to our most vulnerable children. And when adults refuse to use the pronouns and names that match a student’s gender identity, that child hears that they aren’t accepted for who they are — that who they are is unacceptable.

But as Wrabel says in his beautiful song “The Village”, there’s nothing wrong with being transgender. “There’s nothing wrong with you,” the song’s lyrics say. “There’s something wrong with the village.”

Children repeat what they hear at home and in their community. When they overhear their parents using hateful rhetoric, they often adopt the same attitudes and think it is acceptable to act out on those prejudices against their peers. Schools must take a stronger and more active role in countering the hateful messages that have become so loud in our increasingly polarized culture wars.

The death of Nex Benedict, a 16-year-old nonbinary student in Oklahoma, was a stark reminder that anti-LGBTQ rhetoric leads to an increase in bullying and violence. Nex lived with their grandmother and guardian, Sue Benedict, in a supportive and loving home. Ms. Benedict said that Nex had been the target of bullying for well over a year before the bathroom altercation during which three girls attacked Nex, causing injuries severe enough to require medical treatment. Nex Benedict’s death the following day was determined to be suicide, but the family is asking for a full investigation into the events surrounding their death, including the school’s actions and inactions before Nex was brutally beaten in the bathroom.

A similar incident could happen in our own community, despite Washington State laws intended to protect students from bullying and harassment. Most bullying happens out of view of adults and school officials, and children are often reluctant to report it.

To make our community safer for our LGBTQ youth, it is essential to acknowledge that bullying is a real problem in our schools. Awareness and advocacy are also essential. Knowing the rights of transgender people will help both you and your loved ones become better advocates. The ACLU publishes information about transgender rights on their website. Get familiar with it. 

And if you witness or experience bullying and harassment in schools, Safe Schools Coalition has resources to help educators, students, and community members. 

My life has been filled with loved ones across the gender spectrum, and I love the uniqueness and joy they bring into my life. I’m thankful for each one of them and I’m in awe of their strength and courage in living their lives as their authentic selves.

Laws can’t change the hearts and minds of those who wish harm to our LGBTQ family, but education, advocacy, and legal protections can make the world a little safer for the most vulnerable among us. 

And make sure the people in your life know you love them just as they are and that you have their back when others wish them harm.

Let’s fix the village.




Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Execution is not justice

 Execution is not justice

Ted Miller

(originally published in Tumbleweird March 2024)

On January 25, 2024, Kenneth Eugene Smith was suffocated by the State of Alabama until dead.

Euphemistically called ‘nitrogen hypoxia’, Smith was strapped to a gurney, a mask placed over his face, and forced to breathe pure nitrogen. The state claimed in a court filing that, although untested and never used for an execution, “nitrogen hypoxia is painless because it causes unconsciousness in seconds.” 

But, as the AP reported, Smith convulsed and struggled for several minutes, spasming so violently that the gurney shook, followed by several minutes of gasping for air before he stopped breathing altogether. The process took at least 22 minutes.

“It was the most violent thing I’ve ever seen,” said Reverend Jeff Hood, who was in the death chamber as Smith died.

This was the second attempt to execute Smith. In 2022, on the same gurney, his botched execution was called off when, after several hours of stabs and cuts, the executioners failed to find a suitable vein to administer the lethal injection that he was scheduled to receive.

Kenneth Eugene Smith was not an innocent man. In 1988, he murdered Elizabeth Sennett for $1000. He was convicted in 1996 by a jury that voted 11 to 1 to sentence him to life in prison. The judge overruled the jury and sentenced him to death (which would not have been allowed under Alabama law today).

When I discuss my opposition to the death penalty, the heinousness of the crime is usually brought up as justification for the punishment. I know that evil exists in the world, and there are certainly crimes that turn my stomach and for which the criminal must be held accountable. My opposition to capital punishment doesn’t mean I think such terrible crimes are okay.

In a just society, the rule of law must be upheld in a way that deters crime and ensures our safety through fairness and accountability. By any objective measure, capital punishment is neither fair nor an effective deterrent.

As I wrote in April 2020, the South carries out over 80% of all executions in the United States, yet has the highest murder rate of any U.S. region. The Northeast, with less than 1% of executions, has the lowest murder rate. That doesn’t correlate with deterrence.

The death penalty is expensive, costing taxpayers three to eight times more than similar cases where capital punishment is not sought, even considering the cost of life imprisonment. 

More importantly, the death penalty is not fair. Since 1973, more than 195 people have been released from death row with evidence of their innocence. How many more have been executed for crimes they did not commit? 

So, if it is more expensive, ineffective as a deterrent, and risks executing innocent people, I can think of only one reason to call for the death penalty. Revenge.

But vengeance is not justice. If the law were merely to ensure equal punishment for a crime, it would be an eye for an eye, leading to a society in which everyone is blind. If you think a murderer should be killed because the punishment should match the crime, do you then believe a rapist should be raped? If so, by whom?

Violence in response to violence is not justice. Violence in response to a violent crime makes us no better than the criminal.

In an interview after being in the death chamber as Kenneth Smith was suffocated, Reverend Jeff Hood said, “The greatest evil of the death penalty is that it makes us all murderers.”

Referring to the story of the adulterous woman in the bible, Hood quoted Jesus as saying, “You who are without sin cast the first stone.”

“The death penalty is not about the person being executed. It’s about us,” Hood said. “We can call that person unrighteous all we want to. It’s not a question about the righteousness of the person being executed. It’s a question of whether or not we think we are righteous enough to kill someone.”

As Gwen Adshead wrote in The Guardian, “The job of the law is to prevent revenge, not enact it.”

In 2018, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled in State v. Gregory that the death penalty in our state is unconstitutional. Last year, Washington officially abolished the death penalty when Governor Inslee signed Senate Bill 5087 into law. 

Twenty-nine states still allow the death penalty. The United States is one of the five countries with the highest number of executions, along with China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt.

It is long past time to abolish the death penalty. 

Execution is not justice.


Note: Data is from deathpenaltyinfo.org unless otherwise indicated.

Other sources:







Tuesday, January 30, 2024

Martin Luther King, Jr. was a radical

Martin Luther King, Jr. was a radical

Ted Miller

(originally published in Tumbleweird February 2024)

Editor’s note: The FBI quote in this essay includes an outdated term that was left unaltered to reflect the tone of the original statement.

I’ve often quoted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in my essays, usually something he said about love or the importance of nonviolence. 

I don’t remember which specific essay or quote prompted a comment from a reader, but I remember them saying to be careful quoting MLK. Dr. King, they said, was a man of more complexity and nuance than his most popular quotes celebrated him to be. King had pretty radical ideas, they claimed. He was a socialist and endorsed communism. He was against capitalism and was anti-military. The reader called him anti-American. I was told that I should read some of MLK’s later material and perhaps I wouldn’t be so quick to quote him in the future.

I am certainly not an authority on the life and teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, but I have followed up on my friend’s suggestion and continue to do so. The more I read, the more I realize that Dr. King understood the evils of the world and what needed to be done to overcome them. And I see how his ideas were (and are) considered truly radical.

Probably the most often-used quote of Dr. King is from his “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered from the Lincoln Memorial at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963: 

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

This quote, taken out of context, is used to argue that we are a post-racial society. That we should all be colorblind. That race doesn’t matter. That to consider race is itself racist.

But this insidious view undermines everything Dr. King stood for. If racism had truly been vanquished, then why, after half a century, do we still have such a disparity among racial groups? How do we explain that poverty among Black people is twice that of white people; that the wealth of white families is nearly ten times that of Black families; that Black men are two and half times more likely to be killed by police than white men; that Black men are incarcerated at a rate five times higher than white men; that health outcomes are worse for Black people (especially Black women)? Indeed, by almost every measure, racial inequality persists in America despite laws that were supposed to eliminate racism. 

How else do you explain these disparities if systemic racism isn’t real?

Martin Luther King’s ideas on how to transform the world were radical. More than what we read in his most popular quotes — that love is stronger than hate, and that we should have an unshakeable commitment to nonviolence — he believed that structural change was essential to overcome poverty and racism. On April 4, 1967, exactly one year before he was killed, Dr. King gave a speech strongly denouncing the Vietnam War. As I read through “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” in my research for this essay, I could easily replace Vietnam with any of the wars since. What was true in 1967 remains true today. The entire speech is worth reading, but this paragraph seems to capture the essence of King’s point:

“I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. …We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

Although today we celebrate Dr. King’s legacy with a federal holiday and cherry-picked quotes, his ideas when he was alive were not popular. Under J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI illegally monitored his activities and those of other Black activists. In response to his “I Have a Dream” speech, The head of the FBI’s COINTELPRO wrote: 

“In the light of King's powerful demagogic speech ... we must mark him now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro, and national security.”

The United States Government considered Martin Luther King, Jr. a threat to the status quo and targeted him specifically for his beliefs and activism.

But in spite of the constant threats against him and disagreements on how to bring about change among other civil rights leaders, Dr. King would not be deterred. Speaking to the Southern Christian Leadership Conferencein Atlanta on August 16, 1967, he was even more radical. He spoke in favor of a guaranteed basic income, he continued to call for an end to the Vietnam War, and he gave a scathing indictment of the country’s policies and priorities. 

“And I say to you today, that if our nation can spend thirty-five billion dollars a year to fight an unjust, evil war in Vietnam, and twenty billion dollars to put a man on the moon, it can spend billions of dollars to put God’s children on their own two feet right here on earth.”

And in that same speech, he called out the source of injustice.

“What I’m saying to you this morning is communism forgets that life is individual. Capitalism forgets that life is social. And the kingdom of brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of communism nor the antithesis of capitalism, but in a higher synthesis. It is found in a higher synthesis that combines the truths of both. Now when I say questioning the whole of society, it means ultimately coming to see that the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together. These are the triple evils that are all interrelated.”

That triplet of evils continues to hold us back from a world of justice and peace today.

When we remember Dr. King, we should remember all he stood for. We should work to achieve his REALdream. Not only that his children wouldn’t be judged by the color of their skin, but that the divisiveness, the human suffering, the poverty, the militarism, and the injustice in the United States and around the world would be abolished. 

Dr. King had seen the power of the nonviolent demand for civil rights. In his speech at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he gave several examples of how corporations and government had changed policy in response to the power of the boycott, the power of nonviolent protest, and the power of the message. But he cautioned that power must come from a place of love:

“What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best… is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love. And this is what we must see as we move on.”

As we call for radical change, let us remain as hopeful and committed to change as Dr. King. 

Preaching in Memphis the night before he died, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. described the hopeful future he saw in the words of his final sermon:

“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop…. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.”



To read Dr. King’s words for yourself, I recommend The Radical King, by Martin Luther King, Jr, edited by Cornel West.

Friday, December 29, 2023

At what cost?

At what cost?

Ted Miller
(originally published in Tumbleweird January 2024)


On October 7th, Hamas terrorists launched more than 3000 rockets into southern Israel from Gaza and coordinated multiple cross border attacks, brutally murdering 1200 innocent people and taking 240 hostages. It was a criminal act of war that shocked the world. There is no way to justify the violent attack morally, ethically, or legally. 


Israel wasted no time in responding with devastating air attacks. Implementing a complete siege of the Gaza Strip, supplies of food, electricity, fuel, and water were cut off. Days later, a ground attack was launched, with tanks and soldiers entering cities and towns to continue the military response. With the exception of a short ceasefire to exchange hostages, the air and ground assault have been relentless. The Israeli War Council’s stated goal has been to “eradicate Hamas.”


After just over two months, more than 20,000 Palestinian civilians have been killed, and more than 50,000 injured. Most of those killed have been women and children. Homes, hospitals, and entire towns have been destroyed. Two million of the 2.3 million residents of Gaza, nearly 90 percent, have been displaced. People are told to evacuate from one location, only to find themselves under attack after they flee to a designated ‘safe’ place. Few have been allowed to leave Gaza. There is insufficient food and clean water, little shelter, and no functioning hospitals. The sick and the injured are dying because care is impossible to provide and humanitarian supplies are practically nonexistent. Very little international aid has been allowed into Gaza.


The October 7th attack on innocent civilians in Israel was horrifying and devastating to the victims and their families. The devastation of the Palestinian people suffering from the response is no less heartbreaking.


There is a philosophy in war called proportional response, meaning the response to a military assault should be proportionate to the violence of the attack, and limited to that necessary for self-defense or to eliminate a threat. Legal pundits have weighed in on the war in Gaza, debating the finer points of international law and the rules of war. I’ve read a number of articles making the case that Israel’s actions in Gaza are legal under international law. Perhaps they are legal, but are they justified?


A few weeks after the Hamas attack, Lucian K Truscott wrote an essay called “What is a War Crime?” Truscott went through a lengthy explanation to say that what Hamas did was a war crime, but that Israel’s response was within the international rules of war, even though thousands of civilians were being killed in the process. 


I commented that, “Just because something is legal doesn’t mean it is either moral or ethical.” 


“But a line has to be drawn somewhere, don't you think?” Truscott replied directly to me.


I said, “There are no easy solutions and no clear lines. But there are always choices. Some choices result in innocent deaths, some choices spare those suffering people.”


Proportional response and the rules of war don’t tell us where to draw that line. Who decides what is proportional? When does a defensive military response cross the line of proportionality and become revenge? Or when does that response take on a broader goal beyond self-defense? Whose lives are expendable for the sake of security? 


Lost in all this legal debate are those who really pay the price for this war. It isn’t Hamas, or the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), or the American taxpayer funding the Israeli war machine who pay the consequences. The price for this war is being paid with the deaths of thousands — and the disrupted lives of millions — of innocents who didn’t start the violence, and who only want to live their lives in peace, just like you and me.


But do we think about Palestinians being like you and me, or do we consider them all terrorists by association? Do we really think every human life has equal worth? In war, do all civilian lives matter equally? How many civilian deaths are justified as the necessary cost of battle?


In an interview with the Washington Post in early December, an IDF official explained how, in spite of the number of civilian casualties, they were complying with the law. He said that of the 15,000 people that had been killed, an estimated 5000 of those were Hamas militants. By that count, the cost was two civilians for every militant. 


“That proportion is more than acceptable compared to other armies facing similar challenges in urban battlefields,” the official said. “It’s not that we are okay with any loss of civilians. But in the end, we have no choice. We didn’t start this war.”


Ah, but there is a choice in how to respond. There is always a choice when it comes to violence.


As I was researching how to frame my thoughts on this, I found an article by Jessica Wolfendale of Case Western Reserve University that put into perspective what I have been trying to articulate. In her essay Why all civilian lives matter equally, according to a military ethicist, she provides a way to think about whether an action considers all civilian lives as equal. She used the November 15th Israeli attack on the Shifa hospital as an example. Israel justified the Shifa hospital attack as acceptable in spite of civilian losses because, they claimed, Hamas had a command center and weapons hidden under the hospital.


At the time of the attack, the hospital was low on supplies and was housing civilians seeking refuge along with patients, including premature babies. In asking whether the attack was proportionate to the military need, and whether civilian lives were being considered equally, Wolfendale phrased the question this way: “If Hamas was hiding a control base under an Israeli hospital and it was Israeli civilians at risk, would Israel think that attacking the hospital would be justified? If the answer is no, then the attack against Shifa hospital is also not justified.”


War is a choice. Violence is a choice. And if we truly value all human life, we will choose an alternative to violence rather than accept civilian casualties as just an unfortunate price to pay.


If those Palestinian civilians were your family, perhaps you wouldn’t be so willing to accept the cost.

Thursday, September 28, 2023

The dangerous politics of woke

The dangerous politics of woke

Ted Miller

(originally published in Tumbleweird October 2023)


I don’t remember hearing the word ‘woke’ used to describe antiracism before the summer of 2020, but it’s not a new term. I just wasn’t paying attention.


In response to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and too many other Black Americans, many white Americans began to grapple with understanding the role racism has played in our history, and how each of us plays a role in perpetuating systems that continue to privilege some more than others. 


Books on racism topped the best seller lists in 2020 and sold out. Corporations and nonprofit organizations quickly adopted Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion statements. Antiracist educators and writers dominated talk shows and editorials. White-centered privilege was being challenged everywhere. White America, it seemed, was once again waking up to the realities of systemic racism. Something Black America has always known.


And the term woke started appearing everywhere. 


The idea of staying awake in the face of oppression has been around for at least a hundred years. In 1923, Jamaican social activist Marcus Garvey wrote “Wake up, Ethiopia! Wake up Africa!” In a 1938 song about the Scottsboro Boys, Lead Belly sang “stay woke” in response to Black teenagers falsely accused of raping white women.  In 1940, when a Black union leader discovered Black miners were being paid much less than white miners, he said, “We were asleep. But we will stay woke from now on.” 


By the 2010s, the term was being used more broadly to describe social justice. But like other terms that were coined within a marginalized community, the word ‘woke’ has been transformed into a pejorative. Like CRT and Black Lives Matter, woke has been weaponized as a cudgel against progressive ideas conservatives work so hard to oppose.


Acknowledging our racist history is woke. Support for trans kids is woke. Access to abortion, gay rights, climate action, police and prison reform — anything that challenges conservative ideology — all are woke. And, to the extreme right, woke is somehow anti-American. But what is more American than our commitment to the ideals of equality and humanity set forth in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution?


Anti-wokeness is more than a political slogan. In the name of stopping wokeness, our long march towards a more just and inclusive America is being set back. Real people are getting hurt. People who look or believe differently from those who think they are the ‘true Americans’ are being pushed further to the margins.


Injustice continues to exist in the United States. Millions of Americans live in poverty while the wealth gap continues to get worse. The United States has, by far, the highest rate of gun violence and the highest rate of incarceration of any other developed nation. Millions of Americans lack access to basic health care. Too many children go to bed hungry. But instead of blaming this growing injustice on the policies and systems responsible, anti-wokeness blames injustice on the “woke mob.”


Feeding into the fear of change, wokeness is the new scapegoat for the perceived difficulties felt by the average American. If those in power can convince enough of us that our problems will be solved by returning to a mythical American greatness that never existed, they can hold on to their wealth and power while the rest of us turn against each other instead of demanding change for the better.


Garrett Bucks wrote an excellent piece on Substack a few months ago called “What We Talk About When We Talk About ‘Woke’” (you should read it).  He warns that it would be a trap to dismiss anti-wokeness as silly or cartoonish. Railing against M&Ms, Black mermaids, and Bud Light seems ridiculous, but we need to remember that those attacks resonate with a large number of Americans who are afraid of the rapid changes in our society, and they are listening. We can’t allow the anti-woke grifters an unchallenged platform to whitewash our history, demonize drag queens, and restrict the rights of anyone who is not white and Christian.


Bucks closes his piece by reminding us that our anger shouldn’t be directed at those who fall into the trap of believing the anti-woke rhetoric. To understand their fear is to take the first step towards overcoming it. He differentiates between those who truly hate, and those who fear. He writes:


“Hatred is nearly impossible to transform. Fear isn’t, though. Fear is an ellipsis. Fear is an invitation. Fear is a desire to be heard. And hearing that fear, in turn, is a first step towards transforming it into empathy.”


Those of us who want a more just world must continue to pay attention to the rhetoric used to turn back progress. The words used may change, but the intent is the same. Words that divide us keep us from working together. We need to call that out when we see it.


We need to continue to stay woke. 



Thursday, August 24, 2023

Democracy needs a free press to survive

Democracy needs a free press to survive

Ted Miller

(originally published in Tumbleweird September 2023)


The freedom to report on the government and its leaders without censorship is a fundamental principle of a functioning democracy. When governments and those in power have the ability to censor the media and suppress the voice of the people, despotism takes root and chokes out the democratic rule of law.


The First Amendment guarantees the right of a free press in order to hold government accountable through investigating and reporting on the actions (and inactions) of government officials and organizations. The press is so important in this role that it has often been referred to as the fourth branch of government, a necessary check on the powers of those we elect and those who are appointed to uphold the law.


And because both the constitution and the law recognize the importance of the press, journalists and media organizations are protected from revealing sources and sharing details of ongoing investigations except in the most extreme cases, or when there is probable cause that a journalist has committed a crime.


On August 11, 2023, in Marion, Kansas, city and county law enforcement officers raided the Marion County Record offices, confiscating computers, cell phones, notes, essentially everything needed to publish the paper. In addition to the raid on the newspaper offices, the homes of the Marion Vice Mayor and the home of publisher Eric Meyer, who lived with his 98-year-old mother, Joan Meyer, was also searched and similar items were seized. Joan Meyer died the next day and Eric Meyer believes the stress of the raid contributed to her death.


The warrant for the search and seizure was issued following a complaint by a local restaurant owner who was upset about the paper’s reporting. Additionally, the paper had been investigating information they had received legally from a source about the restaurant owner’s driving record, but the paper had chosen not to publish that information. Following the raid, it was also learned that the paper had been actively investigating the Marion Chief of Police over allegations of sexual misconduct at his previous job, but that investigation was still in progress and there was not yet a plan to publish anything related to that investigation. 


Following the seizure of their equipment, with help from others and an all-nighter, the Record was able to publish their weekly issue on time. You can read their lead story about the incident “SEIZED: But Not Silenced” at marionrecord.com.


The Marion County Record is a relatively small weekly paper with a circulation of about 4000. With a reputation for hard-nosed reporting and unflinching editorials about local officials, it appears that a local business owner, county sheriff, and a willing magistrate overstepped their legal authority to attack a newspaper they didn’t like.


Vilifying the press is nothing new. For the last four decades, right-wing personalities and politicians have sowed a deep mistrust of the so-called mainstream media in consumers of conservative media. Many of my friends and family refuse to believe anything in traditional media. Long gone are the days when the vast majority of Americans trusted the voices of Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow.


Sowing distrust in the media with claims of fake news and liberal bias is one thing (which, as much as I think it undermines our democracy, is largely protected speech under the First Amendment). But using an agency of the government to raid a media company reporting on something you don’t like is unconstitutional. 


Local newspapers in the United States continue to close at a rate of about two each week. And with that, local communities lose the kind of reporting Eric Meyer and the Marion County Record do to hold their local businesses, school boards, county officials, and city council members accountable. 


I hear complaints about our local paper, The Tri-City Herald, all the time. People either repeat the same misguided talking points you hear about national media or complain that they can’t access a paywall restricted article online without paying for it. But without the Herald, who would be reporting on our local issues? We’ve certainly had plenty to write about recently, and I’m thankful that I can read about issues as they happen and have an opportunity to follow up on my own. I don’t have the time or ability to go to every board and council meeting, but local journalists can cover at least some of the issues. 


Local reporters dig into the facts and report them so that we, the members of the community, can stay informed. I don’t want our local council members, school board members, and the sheriff’s office deciding to raid the offices or homes of writers for The Tri-City HeraldTumbleweird, or the Tri-Cities Observer if they feel threatened by the media.


We should all be alarmed at what happened in Marion, Kansas. And we should all be deeply concerned over the loss of local journalism across the country.


Maris Kabas interviewed Eric Meyer shortly after the raid in her Substack column The Handbasket. Mr. Meyer, the publisher of the Marion County Record, takes no salary from the paper (he lives on his pension from his career at the University of Illinois and the Milwaukee Journal). He believes journalism is fundamental to a working democracy. In the interview, he expressed concern about how attacks on the local press by government officials affect everyone in the community.  Mr. Meyer said: 


I talked to one person [in Marion] who said, “Oh, are you sure It's ok that I can talk to you because they might come and seize my computer?” They're afraid. They're really afraid that the police power is unchecked, and that they can be punished like this. And I think that's why I think it's important for us to fight this as much as we can, because it is destroying everything we're trying to do with democracy. … It’s a way to dispirit people from becoming involved in government by making them think that if you do, there's gonna be consequences and they're going to be negative. 


A week after the raid, the warrant was withdrawn, and the paper’s equipment was returned. The Record has hired a digital forensic company to determine whether any of their sensitive records were accessed after the equipment was seized. But the Marion County Record will continue to do the work for the people of Marion County.


Support local journalism, support the media companies that can do deep investigative reporting at a regional and national level, and continue to support a free press. Without it, democracy will die.


Thursday, June 22, 2023

Organize to save democracy

Organize to save democracy 

Ted Miller

(originally published in Tumbleweird July 2023)


I learned a new word this month while researching how democracies fail. Autogolpe is a ‘self-coup’, or a type of government takeover by a leader who came to power through legal means, but then stays in power (or attempts to do so) through illegal means. This seizure of government power happened so frequently in Latin America that it led to our use of Spanish for the term. But it has happened in countries around the world. Napoleon Bonaparte, Adolf Hitler, and Vladimir Putin all consolidated their power through an autogolpe. Asia and Africa have also experienced government takeover from within.


An autogolpe was something many of us thought could never happen in the United States… until January 6, 2021. We shouldn’t have been surprised.


Donald Trump and his supporters attempted to seize power following a lawful election he lost. So far, this attempted autogolpe has been unsuccessful because enough Republican officials upheld the law and refused to violate their oath to the Constitution. 


As I wrote in Can we save our democracy (Nov 2021) and A republic if you can keep it (Nov 2022), efforts to suppress and disenfranchise voters through voter suppression, disinformation, empowering legislatures to override elections, and extreme gerrymandering are continuing. But there is some hope. Last month’s Supreme Court ruling in Allen v. Milligan decided that Alabama had limited Black voter representation in Congress through extreme gerrymandering. Although this surprise ruling is encouraging, there is no guarantee that the right to vote will continue to be protected by the courts. 


One of the biggest threats to our democracy is that too many of us don’t realize that the threat even exists. Most Americans don’t realize how fragile our government is, or how close we are to a single party autocracy. Most of us don’t pay attention to politics. We are so busy trying to take care of ourselves, our families, and our jobs that we don’t have the time to follow what’s happening in our local, state, and federal government. We are so comfortable with the status quo that we don’t recognize the danger we are in by allowing our political norms to erode. We vote on hot button issues and soundbites. And the guardrails of political norms that have protected our democracy in the past are in jeopardy.


Our political norms are eroding. 


An April 2023 survey by the University of Chicago Project on Security & Threats (CPOST) showed that one in five Americans still believe the 2020 election was stolen from Trump. One in twenty still think the use of force is justified to return him to the presidency. Professor Robert Pape, director of CPOST, said that “political violence is going from the fringe to the mainstream…. What you’re seeing is really disturbing levels of distrust in American democracy, support for dangerous conspiracy theories, and support for political violence itself.”


It is not surprising that the poll showed an extreme level of polarization in the United States, but more concerning is that a majority of Americans don’t believe elections will solve our most pressing political and social problems. What this indicates to me is a loss of confidence in our system of government which can lead directly to a loss of that system altogether.


In a recent interview with three Harvard political scholars, Erica Chenoweth said: 


“I think it’s not an issue of polarization because it’s totally asymmetrical. What we have is radicalization on the right and fragmentation on the center and left. What is needed in that type of environment is unprecedented levels of civic cooperation among those that have up until now been pretty fragmented. We’re talking about much more sophisticated and deliberate modes of community organizing and cooperation across the pro-democratic civil society that we do have in the country but that [haven't] had to work those muscles in a really long time.”


In the same interview, Archon Fung said:


It’s pretty hard to identify whose job it is to fight for democracy. Everybody’s fighting for their values, for their issues, whether it’s social justice, or health care, or environment, or pro-life or pro-choice. For a long time, we’ve taken the democratic structure for granted. I think the silver lining is a lot more people are not taking that structure for granted.”


Chenoweth followed with:


“Nobody’s going to ride in on a white horse, but it also is up to all of us to do what we can — organizing one’s neighborhood block to find out how people are doing, recommitting to caring for one another, developing those thick ties of social connection. That really is where democracy lives. One of the things that has been too easy for the Democratic Party in this country, and the people who vote Democratic, is to think that it’s all about the White House, it’s all about the national level. We’re going to come to a time when what we’re doing at home and in our communities and within the states is going to be really important in determining the type of lives that people are able to lead.”


And I think that is the key. It really must start locally. We’ve seen how national politics has infected our local politics here in Eastern Washington. Instead of focusing on improving our communities and providing basic services, partisanship has divided us and prevented us from working on all the non-partisan issues we all have in common.


Every major step towards a better government has come through community organizing. Abolition, suffrage, civil rights, and a more just and equitable nation were achieved by the people working against those who wanted to maintain a system benefitting the few at the expense of the many.


Let’s work on restoring local connections in our communities. Support local organizers working together to make our communities a better place. 


Don’t let those who are pushing hot button social issues divide us when we really should be paying attention to restoring faith in our elections and support for our system of government. 


We are the government. We have the power. Let’s organize and use it.