Nurturing creativity with art, animals, and science fiction

Category: First Amendment Series

"The job of speculative and science fiction is to envision future outcomes in accessible ways. It’s what we sf writers do: we create engaging thought-experiments about how things might be." – Jan S. Gephardt.

Equal civil rights for all

The Future We Want – Part 3

By Jan S. Gephardt

Now here’s a radical thought: a country where equal civil rights for all is a reality. Do we have any such place in the world today? I can’t say for sure, but I do know one thing. The United States is currently no such place.

Yes, I know Thomas Jefferson’s words in the Declaration of Independence said it’s “self-evident” that “all men are created equal.” But even he and his fellow rich, white, male, slave-owning revolutionaries didn’t mean that literally.

I have been hearing a wide variety of exceptions and variations on this quote all my life, mostly to point out ways it’s not true or fudge the “rule,” rather than to seriously embrace the idea that it actually, like ever happens. Because, of course, we realize it doesn’t.

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." - Thomas Jefferson
(Courtesy of Quote Thee).

Equal, with Rights?

The rest of the “all men are created equal” thought immediately links equality to rights: “that they [the “all men” who are equal] are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” But, to quote another popular phrase, “The devil is in the details.” Certainly, Thomas Jefferson didn’t think “all men are created equal” meant all of humanity. Considering how he treated Sally Hemings, he certainly didn’t mean either women or slaves.

Nor did the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights clearly establish just exactly what “unalienable Rights” the Creator (or, more practically, the government) might have endowed upon them. “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” is a bit too vague and sweeping to be helpful in a court of law. It certainly can’t, and never did, guarantee equal civil rights for all.

I spent four weeks in July 2020 discussing the First Amendment alone, and how difficult it is to nail down specifics. If you’d like to see those posts, they start with “Freedom of Religion: Is the First Amendment an Aspiration?” (July 2, 2020) and run through “The Importance of Freedom of the Press” (July 29, 2020). But the quest for equal civil rights for all goes beyond the First Amendment.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal.”
Chief Joseph: “The earth is the mother of all people, and all people should have equal rights upon it.”
Harvey Milk: “All men are created equal. No matter how hard they try, they can never erase those words. That is what America is about.”
(See credits below).

Equality and Equity

It would be easy and convenient if equality and equity were the same thing, achievable by simple weights and measures. But they’re not. Equality means everyone gets exactly the same treatment, or pay, or goods, or whatever. And in some cases that’s exactly the right approach.

Two people do the exact same job for a company? They should be paid equally – even if one is a woman or a member of a minority. That’s not to say that if one does extra work s/he shouldn’t be paid a bonus. But again, each should get an equal chance to earn that bonus. That’s simple fairness.

Sometimes it’s that easy, but most of the time It’s not. To echo Napoleon the Pig in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, it becomes a problem when “some animals are more equal than others.” When the goal is actual, genuine equal civil rights for all? Oh, that’s never been easy! In fact, lately it seems to be growing harder and harder to secure.

All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others." - George Orwell
(Courtesy of Magical Quote).

A Tale of Two Little Girls

Here’s another equality/equity hypothetical situation. Say there are two smart little girls. One lives in a nice suburb, goes to an expensive science camp in the summer, and has a grandma in another city who likes to take her to the theatre and kids’ museums whenever she visits. She is well-traveled, well-fed, in excellent health, and her education never lacks for enrichment.

The other kid grew up in a series of shabby, drafty apartments, in between stints of living in the family car. She’s always hungry. She lives in a dangerous part of town, where people sometimes find dead bodies on the street or in their yards. Her mom works two jobs and can’t stay home with her much, so her auntie keeps an eye on her, along with her three cousins, whom the auntie favors. They never go out because Auntie’s immigration status is “iffy.”

Do these two little girls, of equivalent intelligence, both have an equal chance to do well in school? Of course not. That’s where the question of equity comes in. The first little girl has all kinds of advantages the second one can’t access without extra help from the school and the community. Help she may or may not (probably won’t) get, depending on where she lives and what the State Legislature’s priorities are And, as we all know, these priorities are rarely in the best interest of smart little girls in poverty-stricken neighborhoods.

In the “reality” section, the differences in resources are extreme between three kids looking over a fence at a baseball game. One stands on a whole pile of boxes, one can see over, standing on one box, and the littlest one is standing in a hole. Can’t see over at all. In the “Equality” section each kid stands on a box. The tall kid can easily see over, the middle kid is unchanged, and the little one stands on his box but still can’t see over. In the “Equity” section, the tall kid didn’t need his box. He can still see over. The middle kid is unchanged. He can see over, too. The smallest one now stands on two boxes, and can see over the fence! In the ”Liberation” section, all can see, without the aid of boxes, because there is no fence.
(See credits below).

What’s the End Goal?

The reality in which we live is far different from any abstract ideal of equality. And even equality needs adjustments in how resources are distributed, to provide true equity. The cartoon above offers a fourth state, “Liberation,” which deserves consideration as well. But, for today, let’s just focus on equal civil rights for all. And let’s define “equal civil rights for all” as equitable access to opportunities, equal protection under the law, and an equal say in how we are governed.

I’ve talked about equity and equality above. This series, “The Future We Want” focuses on not only what kind of future we want to live in, but how science fiction can help us form a vision of that future. A vision is essential, if we’re to achieve almost any goal. But what do we see around us? Certainly not equal civil rights for all! We must apply a large dose of imagination for that.

"The job of speculative and science fiction is to envision future outcomes in accessible ways. It’s what we sf writers do: we create engaging thought-experiments about how things might be." – Jan S. Gephardt.
(See credits below).

What Would Equal Civil Rights for All Look Like?

Equitable access to opportunities implies no glass ceilings, no systemic racism, and no history of apartheid and genocide – or appropriate reparations made, to recognize such a history. There’d be no antisemitism, no Islamophobia, or any other religious or ethnic bias. It would allow no gender, sexuality, identity, or age bias. (I’m already imagining the groans about political correctness, but wait! There’s more).

This hypothetical system also would accommodate for differently-abled candidates. We’d ideally be able to work out a system much like the “blind auditions widely adopted by symphony orchestras and other, similar venues. What system could we use? Mm. Good question. But I’d welcome ideas in the Comments, about how to achieve more equitable access to opportunities for everyone.

Equal protection under the law would yield racially proportionate rates of conviction and incarceration – something we’ve never had in the United States. It would end the need for Black parents to give their children “The Talk” about what to do when they are (inevitably, no matter what they do) stopped by police. It would end the criminalization of poverty and the routine abuses to persons experiencing houselessness. And it would mean public defenders’ offices were as well-funded and prestigious as prosecutors’ offices.

“I've always been driven by the concept of equal justice under the law, but only the rich can pay great sums of money for legal assistance and that puts them at an advantage over the poor.” -Samuel Dash
(Courtesy of Moonsling).

How about the Civil Rights the Civil Rights Movement Fought for?

An equal say in how we are governed would mean no gerrymandering (this a bitter issue with me right now, living as I do in the proposed-to-be divided Kansas Third District). It would mean that it would never be illegal to offer water and a sandwich to would-be voters standing in line for hours. It also would mean that no voters would have to stand in line for hours!

That there’d be widely-available mail-in balloting. That there’d be more than one drop-box for ballots in enormous districts such as Harris County, TX. And that all election officials would act in strictly nonpartisan manner.

An equal say in how we are governed would – in the United States – mean changes in the Senate (it’s extraordinarily undemocratic). Also, probably the abolition of the Electoral College (a system which routinely renders my Kansas-based vote for President irrelevant every four years). Both of these institutions were compromises designed to keep smaller states and minority populations from being drowned out by the influence of larger states. Neither “fix” is improving equity today in the way the Founders hoped.

"A vote is a prayer about the kind of world we want to live in." - Rev. Raphael Warnock
(See credits below).

Science Fiction and Equal Civil Rights for All

We need to see imagined worlds where it is possible to reach for, and maybe even achieve, more equal civil rights for all. In my opinion, one of the very best ways to do that is to create compelling, interesting stories about the future that show people what this concept would look like, feel like, and be like. Speculative and science fiction writers, this is our moment! Some of you may want to wallow in dystopia, but please! Offer us hope as well!

I care a great deal about equity and equality. It is one of the major themes that informs my science fiction. I designed Rana Station, the setting for most of my XK9 stories, as a place where all-too-fallible humans (and a couple of other species) try to create a place that helps all residents reach their full potential. But developing a vision for our world will need more than one small indie press, and more than one little-known writer advocating for better visions of the future.

It will need many more of us. It will need leaders in the field to stand up and say “this is worth writing about!” (thank you Neal Stephenson and Kim Stanley Robinson, for two examples of writers who are). Science fiction has changed the real world in many ways already. It’s time for us to do it again. And a good place to start is creating a vision of equal civil rights for all.


Many thanks to Quote Thee for the Thomas Jefferson quote-image (originally from IZQuotes, but that page wouldn’t function for me). I also appreciate AZQuotes for the Harvey Milk quote; Quotesgram for the one from Elizabeth Cady Stanton; and BrainyQuote for the one from Chief Joseph (Montage by Jan S. Gephardt). And I’m grateful to Magical Quote for the Orwell “All animals” quote-image.

Angus Maguire created the “Reality-Equality-Equity-Liberation” image for Interaction Institute for Social Change, which holds the copyright and granted permission to use the image. I appreciate all! I created the “The Job of speculative and science fiction” image with some help from Chaz Kemp’s licensed Nebula 2 artwork, © 2021 by Chaz Kemp. This image was first used for my “Looking for Hope” post.

I’m grateful to Moonsling for the quote-image about equal protection under the law from Samuel Dash. I first assembled the quote from a tweet by the Rev. Raphael Warnock (now US Senator Warnock) in November 2020. It’s now reformatted slightly and discovered that the background photo is originally from the Baltimore Sun, taken at the Maryland primary election, June 2, 2020 by the multitalented Karl Merton Ferron. Deepest appreciation to all of them!

This montage of images from the riot at the Capitol shows insurgents pushing past police barricades, roaming the halls of Congress in their extremist costumes and T-shirts, taking photos in the Rotunda, and milling in a hallway in a cloud of tear gas.

The Riot at the US Capitol

So much for 2021 being a quieter year than 2020! “Weird SistersJan S. Gephardt and G. S. Norwood both posted pleasant, hopeful blog posts early in the day on January 6, 2021.

In what feels like an image from an alternate reality, a beautiful golden sunrise forms the backdrop for block numbers “202.” In place of the “1,” the silhouette of a young woman stands with her arms up as if in joyous greeting to the new year
Romolo Tavani/123rf

They went live before the treasonous terrorist riot at the US Capitol. But this week we couldn’t go on as if nothing had happened. The riot at the US Capitol might not have had the same death toll as 9/11, but we will always remember that day.

Eventually, you’ll see the posts we originally planned to run this week. But this week we need to speak out—especially after we posted so often on First Amendment issues through the summer of 2020.

G. S. Norwood on the Riot at the US Capitol

Man, did that blog post become obsolete in a big hurry!

I had no sooner posted a sweet little blog entry last Wednesday—all about New Year’s traditions and starting off on the right foot—than angry mobs of far-right extremists were sacking the US Capitol building and trying to overthrow our democracy. Congressional Representatives and Senators were terrorized, art and historical artifacts were damaged or destroyed, blood and other bodily substances were smeared around those hallowed halls . . . And five people died.

This montage of images from the riot at the Capitol shows insurgents pushing past police barricades, roaming the halls of Congress in their extremist costumes and T-shirts, taking photos in the Rotunda, and milling in a hallway in a cloud of tear gas.
Insurgents overrun the Capitol: Clockwise from upper left, the traitorous mob pushes past police barricades (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/for The Washington Post); “Q Shaman” and others maraud through the halls (Jim Lo Scalzo/EPAEFE/Shutterstock, via The Washington Post); rioters stop for selfies in the Rotunda (Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney @simoncoveney on Twitter, via Irish Times); and mill down a hallway in a cloud of tear gas (Saul Loeb/AFP, via Irish Times).

In case I have to spell it out, a seditious uprising is NOT the right way to start the new year.

The shock is still wearing off for me. Yes, I know there are dangerous white-supremacist, neo-Confederate, and just flat whacko groups out there. I wrote about some of them back in October, when they marched on the Weatherford, Texas, square. I know that a lot of people refused to accept the results of the November 3 presidential election, and were fighting it tooth and claw through the legal channels of the courts.

Worst losers ever

I also understand that President Trump is a monumentally poor loser who will probably still be insisting that he won by a landslide 100 years after he’s dead. The disembodied voice will whine up from his grave on the nights of the full moon.

But never in a million years did I expect to see a mob of armed rebels storm the halls of the Capitol. Never. Not in a million years.

So much for my powers of prognostication.

This montage of images from the riot at the Capitol shows the Trumpist mob scrambling up the steps of the Capitol Building, and three scenes of reactions by staff and Congress Members trying to protect themselves from the violent invasion.
Barbarians storm the gates: Clockwise from upper left, the Trumpist mob jams the stairs outside the Capitol (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post); Congressional staffers don gas masks against the tear gas (Andrew Harnik/AP, via The Washington Post); other staffers use heavy furniture to bar the door as they shelter in place (Amanda Voisard/for The Washington Post); Members of the House of Representatives and their staffers hunker down behind whatever they can in fear for their lives (Andrew Harnik/AP, via The Washington Post).

Fantasy, meet Reality

Here’s the bottom line for me: I may write urban fantasy, but I believe in reality. I particularly believe in reality-based political action. Any party that spins fantasies to justify policies to hurt real people in the real world has lost my vote. We have a lot of problems to deal with in our pluralistic society, but deciding the winner of the November 3, 2020, election isn’t one of them.

People stand socially-distanced in line to vote in Baltimore.
Residents of Baltimore City line up to cast their votes in the U.S. Presidential and local congressional elections at Carver Vocational Technical School on November 03, 2020 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by J. Countess/Getty Images, via Pew Research Center).

The election was held as outlined in our Constitution. It’s done. It’s over. Every precinct, every county, every state across our nation certified that the elections they oversaw were secure and the results were accurate. State officials—Republican and Democratic—accepted those results. Local, state, and federal courts accepted those results. All the Constitutional requirements have been met. The Electoral College voted and, now, those votes have been accepted by the joint Congress of the United States.

We cannot allow lies and whining and temper tantrums—even oft-repeated ones; even from the highest elected officials of the land—to overrule our laws. Keep repeating that. We are a nation of laws, and everybody—even the whiners, the pouters, the arrogant asses, and the violent malcontents—must abide by the law or suffer the consequences.

Jan S. Gephardt on the Riot at the US Capitol

Were you surprised by the events of January 6, 2021 and the riot at the Capitol, as Senator Pat Toomey said he was, on Meet the Press the Sunday after? Some were, apparently. Such as—allegedly—the Capitol Police.

Many in Washington D.C. were struck by the disparity this image conveys: 1,100 National Guardsmen and hundreds of Federal Law Enforcement officers for the Trump rally that turned into a well-planned assault on the US Capitol, versus 5,000 National Guardsmen and 1,600 Active Duty Troops called for mostly-peaceful Black Lives Matter protests last June.
Compare the responses. The difference is glaring (WUSA 9 photo montage)

I don’t know what planet they live on, because we were warned. We were warned in a hundred ways, large and small. “very fine people on both sides” warned us. The plot to kidnap Governor Widmer warned us. “Stand back and stand by” warned us. The “Biden bus incident” warned us.

Every single Trump rally warned us, or should have. Breaking norms (“Lock her up!” for political adversaries). Ignoring common decency (Disability met with mockery). Ignoring Constitutional limits (Journalists threatened). Flouting science (mask-less super-spreader events).

Death by a thousand cuts

Bit by bit, we grew inured. Jaded. Immune to being shocked. I know many of us tried to hold onto our sense of “What is normal?” in the face of so. Much. Contrarian. Intransigence.

Politically incorrect was suddenly correct, and a badge of “original thinking” (as if falling into clichés was ever original). Up is down, green is red, and right is wrong in Trump World (Michael Cohen calls it “MAGAstan.”)

Aerial view of the Mar-a-Lago Club.
Mar-a-Lago, in Palm Beach, FL. (Getty Images, via Town & Country).

Lies—Trump has told well north of 20,000 lies, in the course of his presidency, according to the Washington Post’s Fact Checker. He was averaging 50 false or misleading claims per day, by last October. This is a political tactic. It even has a name: Bury them in Bullsh**t.

Somewhere in the massive loads of bullsh**t, we and the truth got buried.

Lie by lie by lie, the Truth dies, and all we have left are “alternative facts.” At which point, sure! Why not? A cannibalistic child-porn ring can hold orgies in the basement of a pizza parlor without a basement, and the most secure election in US history can spawn virulent, persistent claims of voter fraud.

What’s ahead?

If we manage to get through the week or so until the Inauguration without further bloodshed, it will be a miracle.

That’s not just my opinion—many in law enforcement agree. At the FBI’s January 12 press conference about the riot at the Capitol, they stressed they have already started more than 100 investigations.  In the weeks and months ahead they anticipate hundreds—even thousands—more. And we’re already getting warnings of new threats.

Because bit by bit, lie by lie, unseemly thing by unseemly thing, thousands of Americans have come to believe the crazy. That autocracy is better than democracy. That white supremacy is a virtuous cause. And that they have the right to “take back” what never was theirs in the first place.

It’s up to the rest of us, in solidarity, to show them how wrong they are.


Oh, wow, do we ever have a lot of people to thank this time. We appreciate Romolo Tavani of 123rf, for the greeting to 2021. Many, many thanks to The Washington Post, as well as Amanda Andrade-Rhoades, Jim Lo Scalzo, EPAEFE, Shutterstock, Ricky Carioti, Andrew Harnik/AP, and Amanda Voisard, as well as Irish Times, Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney (@simoncoveney on Twitter), and Saul Loeb/AFP for the photos in the two montages from the riot at the US Capital.

We also thank Jemal Countess, Getty Images, and the Pew Research Center, for the photo of people in line to vote in Baltimore; WUSA 9, for the graphic comparing the responses in June 2020 and January 2021; and Getty Images, via Town & Country, for the photo of Mar-a-Lago.

Five white men in matching t-shirts, at least three of whom also wear military-style tactical vests and appear to be armed, stand together and exchange looks with four black men who stand across from them, wearing matching T-shirts of a different design bearing the words “#UNITY #JUSTICE #PEACE.” What are they thinking about this encounter?

What are they thinking?

By G. S. Norwood

When armed civilians take to the streets, what are they thinking?

The news out of Kenosha, Wisconsin, is bad. A 17-year-old boy, armed with an assault rifle, killed two protesters and wounded a third. I wanted to finish up this cycle of protest-related blog posts by trying to answer the question: What are they thinking?

Peaceful Protests or Armed Militia?

To get to that answer, I’ll recount a conversation I had online with two men who appeared to support the presence of heavily armed civilians at otherwise peaceful protests.

Before we get any deeper, I want to make clear that in the protests I discuss in this post, people marched peacefully in Weatherford, Texas, and other small towns around the Dallas/Fort Worth area. It was broad daylight. Nobody broke windows, toppled statues, or looted places of business. Nobody announced any intention to commit such acts of destruction.

The local police were both aware of the protesters’ actions and in place to keep the peace. Conditions might be different in other parts of the country, but this is what I saw, and learned from others who were present at the protests, including law enforcement officers.

Online Rumors

After a July 25 march in Weatherford, Texas, to protest the Confederate statue on the Parker County Courthouse lawn, rumors began to spread on the internet. They whispered that the group was going to march again at 3:30 pm on Saturday, August 8.

What are they thinking? Several men ride in the back of a black pickup truck with dark-tinted windows. A large black rifle and scope is tripod-mounted on top of the truck’s cab, next to a large Confederate Battle Flag. Behind them is a limestone storefront from the square in Weatherford Texas.
Photo by Trice Jones, via Dallas Morning News.

As early as 8:30 am, Facebook commenters had spotted some guy in a heavily armored pickup truck with a trailer parked on the square, apparently waiting for the marchers. Others appeared as the day rolled on. Local law enforcement was out in force, detouring traffic away from the square, and calling in reserve officers to monitor the situation.

Right about here you might wonder, “What are they thinking will happen?”

No marchers appeared and, according to a friend within the D/FW progressive community, no march was ever planned. Perhaps it was another example of someone trolling the militia, as happened at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on July 4.

Asking For A Friend

I asked another friend, one of the reserve law enforcement officers called to the square that day, what the official line was on vigilante policing. That is, “private armed citizens threatening other private, possibly armed, citizens in public places.”

He said he couldn’t speak for the officials, but personally he was not a fan. His response echoed the opinion expressed by other former law enforcement officers I know.

That was the point at which one of his other Facebook friends said state statutes and the Constitution allow “protection of property, including that of others.” He said they were there to protect the statue, in case the protesters tried to pull it down.

A stone statue of a man with a goatee, dressed as a Confederate infantryman with a rifle, stands atop a stone base dedicated by the United Daughters of the Confederacy “In honor of the United Confederate Veterans of Parker County, 1861-1865.” The statue stands on the grounds of the Parker County Courthouse in Weatherford, TX.
Photo by Tony Gutierrez, via Dallas Morning News.

While my reserve officer friend agreed that state law allows private citizens to protect property, he offered a more nuanced response. “Her question was about ‘private armed citizens maintaining order by threatening other citizens . . .’ which is NOT allowed by statute or otherwise. I doubt seriously that a citizen that tried to justify the use of force ‘protecting a statue’ would stand much of a chance in court.”

As a former law enforcement officer, who has to maintain his state law enforcement certification to continue to serve as a reserve officer, he has actually studied these questions.

Then a second person commented that, “For a lot of them, [the armed civilians] they’re not specifically protecting the statue. The BLM and Antifa are known to destroy the surrounding area of statues.”

Which isn’t significantly different than just protecting the statue, so still isn’t a legally defensible excuse for armed civilians to threaten protesters. But I wanted to understand the rationale for coming out armed.

What Are They Thinking?

So, I asked one of the commenters, “Isn’t it the job of the Weatherford Police Department and the Parker County Sheriff’s Office to prevent that kind of property destruction? Not the job of private citizens? Do you have any credible information that the WPD and PCSO are incapable of doing the job taxpayers pay them to do in an effective and professional manner? I have always found the professional law enforcement officers in Parker County to be well-trained and highly capable.”

The commenter responded, “I never said the law enforcement agencies here were incapable of doing their job. I personally think that it would serve all concerned much better if there were no armed citizens looking like they were ready for a battle on the town square. I think that there should be a good number of people prepared, however, if things got ugly, to be there quickly to back the LEO up. Some of the folks parading around down there are not helping Weatherford, Parker County, or themselves look good.”

Five white men in matching t-shirts, at least three of whom also wear military-style tactical vests and appear to be armed, stand together and exchange looks with four black men who stand across from them, wearing matching T-shirts of a different design bearing the words “#UNITY #JUSTICE #PEACE.” What are they thinking about this encounter?
Photo by Jason Janik, via Dallas Morning News.

Then I asked, “Isn’t that what reserve officers are for? Trained and TCOLE certified? They would operate in coordination with, and under the command of, WPD, PCSO, and/or DPS. Otherwise you just have a bunch of freelance cop wannabes, operating on their own ‘best judgement’ with no accountability. Seems to me that just makes the whole situation harder for the actual cops to contain.” Nobody responded to that one.

What are WE Thinking?

What are they thinking? It appears to be that they’ll take their guns and go to the protest to “uphold the law” with no real training in what the law actually says, and no grasp of the fact that cops have to let the BLM people march and speak too.

The cops can’t take sides or they undermine the rule of law for everybody. If a bunch of freelance wannabes ride into town to enforce the law as they see fit, they are just winging it on the back of their self-aggrandizing hero fantasies. They make things worse for the real cops, who are trying to do their real jobs.

George Fuller, the mayor of McKinney—another Dallas suburb about 100 miles north and east of Weatherford—put it a different way when a small militia group showed up on the town square there. “As far as those outsiders that are coming in; get on the damn bus and go home. You are not wanted here, you’re not liked here, you don’t add anything other than division, and you look silly. Go play G. I. Joe somewhere else.”

A summer of protests, marches, confusion and disinformation now promises to plunge us into an autumn of more protests, marches, confusion, disinformation, unasked-for Federal responses, and a divisive election. On The Weird Blog and on my sister Jan’s “Artdog Adventures” blog, we’ve spent much of the summer commenting and exploring the issues that have arisen. Anyone who’s read them knows where we stand.

So the themes of Jan’s posts will vary for a while. At least until something else happens to make us ask, “What are they thinking?”


Many thanks to the Dallas Morning News for all three of the images in this post. We’d also like to salute photographers Trice Jones (a local activist?), for the photo of the guy in the truck with a gun in Weatherford TX, Tony Gutierrez, for the photo of the Parker County Confederate Veterans Memorial on the courthouse grounds in Weatherford TX, and Jason Janik, Special Contributor and an AP-affiliated photographer, for the photo of typical-for-2020 militia and protesters. These appear to have been in McKinney, TX, but they represent their compatriots well.

This photo shows construction workers in hard hats using a crane to remove the John B. Castleman statue from traffic circle in the Cherokee Triangle, a Louisville KY neighborhood. Castleman fought on the Confederate side in the Civil War, but changed his mind later and fought segregation in Louisville parks. The statue was to be moved to the cemetery where Castleman was buried.

Whose history?

By Jan S. Gephardt and G.S. Norwood

They say that the winners get to decide whose history—that is, whose version of history—becomes the “official history.” But when it comes to the so-called “Lost Cause,” that isn’t necessarily so.

This photo shows a display of both US flags and the Confederate battle flag, as well as books bearing depictions of images from the “Lost Cause” pseudo-history narrative.
Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Independent.

The pro-slavery South has got to be working some kind of North American record for being persistent sore losers. They’re certainly not the only ones to hold a long-term grudge in world history, but they’ve hung in there for more than 150 years.

Who was it again, that lost the Civil War? Yes, well, we all know denial isn’t only a river in Egypt.

History and the First Amendment

Jan has written a lot of blog posts this summer inspired by the First Amendment. Since the rise of the Black Lives Matter protests, these rights have been on her heart.

Especially so, because the clashes turned violent. Violations of freedom of expression, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly and petition were thick on the ground this summer. We can’t afford not to pay attention.

This photo shows construction workers in hard hats using a crane to remove the John B. Castleman statue from traffic circle in the Cherokee Triangle, a Louisville KY neighborhood. Castleman fought on the Confederate side in the Civil War, but changed his mind later and fought segregation in Louisville parks. The statue was to be moved to the cemetery where Castleman was buried.
Photo by Pat McDonough/Louisville Courier-Journal via CNN.

The renewed calls to take down Confederate monuments are a topic we haven’t tackled till now. For every call to remove them, others cry “you can’t erase history!” But when it comes to issues of erasure and representation, we’re not sure the sympathizers with the “Lost Cause” understand.

They don’t realize that ideologues such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy—who put up many of the monuments—were actually the ones who rewrote, and erased, important parts of our collective history.

The question of whose history we represent—and whose history we erase—is a modern-day minefield where the rules are changing almost as rapidly as the demographics of this country.

A case study in Parker County, TX

A recent episode illustrates some of the complexities of this problem. As she wrote to Jan recently, reports from Weatherford struck home for G., who lived in Parker County, Texas, from 1985 through 2010.

Whose history should be represented on the grounds of the Parker County Courthouse? This aerial photo shows a stunning view of the Courthouse’s distinctive architecture and dramatic setting in the middle of the Weatherford Texas Square.
Photo by Charles Davis Smith, FAIA, via Reddit Snapshots.

“Twenty-five years. I liked the people I met there. They were smart, kind, generous people. Quick to volunteer money and time to worthy causes, they still believed in community groups like the Lions Club and the Masonic Lodge.

“They served on boards, organized rodeos, trail rides, and scholarship funds. They gave high school kids their first jobs, and made sure seniors citizens had hot lunches, affordable housing, and a nice place to go to socialize every day. There were black and Hispanic officers on the local police force and the regional Department of Public Safety (highway patrol) roster. Everybody turned out for the annual Peach Festival.

“I won’t pretend there wasn’t racism. I am white, so I probably didn’t see as much of it as the black professionals I worked beside, but I’m sure it was there, simply because it’s everywhere—especially in states that once belonged to the Confederacy.

The monument on the Courthouse grounds

“A generic stone statue of a nameless Confederate soldier had been placed on the Parker County courthouse lawn by the United Daughters of the Confederacy sometime in the past. Not a work of fine art—just a statement about the county’s history. And apparently its present reality, too.

This photo shows the stone statue of a man in a Confederate uniform, standing and holding a rifle atop a base that reads, “In honor of the United Confederate Veterans of Parker County, 1861-1865.” The base was placed on the grounds of the Parker County Texas Courthouse by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1915, but the statue’s date and ownership are less clear.
Photo by Dreanna L. Belden/University of North Texas “Portal to Texas History.”

“I moved away from Parker County in July 2010. Almost exactly ten years later, on July 25, 2020, some local progressives decided to up their ongoing battle to remove the Confederate statue by leading a small protest march.

“Some sources say there were about 25 Black Lives Matter marchers making their way up South Main to the courthouse square in Weatherford that afternoon. Some estimates go as high as 50.

The counter-protest

All news sources agree that the crowd of counter-protestors who met them was nearly ten times bigger—anywhere from 250 to 500 people.

Counter-protesters came out in force to oppose a small group of demonstrators calling for the removal of the Confederate soldier statue on the grounds of the Courthouse in Parker County, Texas. One of their displays looked like a jail cell with effigies of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in “prisoner black and white stripes” inside. Signs on it read, “Jail Transport,” “History Matters,” “All lives matter,” “Trump has opened our eyes to fake news and lies,” and “Deep state demon rats.”
Photo by Walt Burns/Spectrum News.

“The counter-protesters came with Confederate Flags. They came with signs, denouncing the Black Lives Matter movement. And they came with guns. One guy even mounted a semi-automatic assault rifle in the back of his pickup truck, military style.

“There was a lot of yelling, some pushing and shoving, and three people were arrested. One of them turned out to be a white supremacist leader from Utah. Nobody was injured, but I was appalled.

I had loved Parker County. Loved Weatherford. Made it my home for many happy years. Never in all that time did I suspect that such ignorance and hatred lived just under the surface. I still don’t know how to process it.”

It’s a lot to process. But that question of “whose history?” certainly comes down to some very personal history. As it is many places, it’s deeply personal for many in Weatherford.

Whose history is important?

Some people, like Kim Milner, who grew up in Weatherford and started a petition to keep the statue, call themselves “Those who want to keep the monuments that reflect our history rather than tear them down.”

But “That Lost Cause propaganda,” as protester Courtney Craig called it in an interview last June with CBS 11’s Jason Allen, has drowned out all other historical perspectives for decades.

Doesn’t mean those perspectives went away, though—or aren’t real.

This photo shows a crowd of the original protest group, who want the statue removed. The crowd contains both White and Black people, many of whom are wearing masks. A protester at the front of the crowd holds a sign that reads, “If you’ve ever wondered what you’d do during slavery, the Holocaust, or Civil Rights Movement, you’re doing it right now!”
Photo by Walt Burns/Spectrum News.

Tony Crawford, one of the organizers of the Parker County protesters, told Spectrum News, “My family was lynched on that square,” he said. “I’m going about this knowing full well that after that statue comes down, it may be too dangerous for me to ever step foot in Weatherford again.”

History’s context

Whose history do we value? Whose history do we preserve? Jan and G. believe that history’s lessons are the most rich and meaningful when we remember the voices, thoughts, and memories of all who had a stake in the events of the times.

That means not glorifying any single narrative over all the others. It also means placing things in context. And sometimes that means removing them from one place to another. Along with Courtney Craig, we believe that there may be places where Confederate monuments could be displayed. Confederate cemeteries, perhaps. Museums.

We do not, however, believe that monuments placed years after the end of the Civil War and intended as propagandistic declarations of domination by “Jim Crow” racists should remain on their pedestals overshadowing public spaces. Or stay in places where justice should be upheld.


All of our image sources come from great online articles and other sources that will reward you if you’re interested in learning more. Please dig deeper to your heart’s content. Many thanks to the Milwaukee Independent for the photo of “Lost Cause” books and memorabilia.

We also want to thank photographer Pat McDonough, The Louisville Courier-Journal, and CNN for the photo of John B. Castleman’s equestrian statue being removed from Louisville’s Cherokee Triangle. There’s a video of the removal in the Louisville C-J article, and an in-depth, illustrated list of other removals in the CNN article.

We’re grateful to Charlies Davis Smith, FAIA, via Reddit Snapshots, for the amazing drone shot of the Parker County Courthouse. And we’re also indebted to Dreanna L. Belden and University of North Texas “Portal to Texas History” for the photo of the Confederate monument at the center of the Weatherford controversy.

Double thanks to Walt Burns and Spectrum News for the two photos from the Weatherford protests, both the “Jail Transport” and “You’re doing it right now!” images. They really captured the range of ideas on the march that day.

And finally, we appreciate Mitch Landrieu’s words about the place of Confederate monuments in New Orleans today, made available via the beautifully-produced video from the Atlantic and YouTube.

Many thanks to all!

This is a screen capture from the Tweet referenced in the previous paragraph. Two unidentified Federal officers in desert-camouflage tactical gear and gas masks detain a young woman protester in black clothing and a helmet, before marching her to an unmarked van and taking her away without a word. Their uniforms look military, but are marked only “Police.”

Unidentified Federal Officers

A troubling rash of UF0 sightings — Unidentified Federal Officers — cropped up in June and July. They showed up first in Washington DC, and then in Portland, OR.

Unidentified Federal Officers are a problem

Unlike the more widely-known UFOs, as in the Unidentified Flying Objects of science fiction and popular culture, these UFOs are all too verifiable.

Just . . . not that easy to trace. And that’s a huge problem.

This 3-panel comic strip from “Prickly City” shows Carmen and Winslow, the strip’s two main characters, looking at each other in the first panel. In the second panel, a man in tactical gear with a helmet and a flag patch on his upper arm drags an eagle away, while the eagle asks, “Who are you?!? Where are you taking me?!?!? By what authority?!?” In the third panel, Carmen says to Winslow, “Well, that cannot be good . . .”
Prickly City for 8/4/2020 is ©2020 by Scott Stantis/Uclick/GoComics

They showed up to oppose what often had been mostly-peaceful protesters who were exercising their First Amendment rights. But especially in Portland, the protesters shifted their focus to opposing the Federal agents.

Officials in the District of Columbia and Oregon opposed them, too.

Authoritarian echoes

Portland protesters reported multiple arrests by unidentified officers who seemingly plucked random people off the streets and took them away in unmarked vans. For some idea of how terrifying this looks, a video tweeted by the Sparrow Project captures one such arrest (warning: some onlookers use profanity).

This is a screen capture from the Tweet referenced in the previous paragraph. Two Federal officers in desert-camouflage tactical gear and gas masks detain a young woman protester in black clothing and a helmet, before marching her to an unmarked van and taking her away without a word. Their uniforms look military, but are marked only “Police.”
Unidentified Federal Officers detain a woman in Portland. Photo from “Unlawful Whatever” via The Sparrow Project/Twitter/WSWS screen-capture.

This presents such a frightening similarity to actions in authoritarian regimes that many people had visceral reactions. The now-famous “Wall of Moms” came out in their yellow T-shirts to oppose this in particular. Their movement has now become controversial. But when it first occurred, the immediate comparison I drew was to the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo.

Yes, I’m once again gonna mark myself as old,because I personally remember when people said the rumors about “the disappeared” must be an exaggeration. Surely not, in a civilized society such as Argentina! Maybe some of those disclaimers were made because the “Dirty War” was secretly supported by the United States. But it turned out the grandmothers were right.

Why is the anonymity so ominous?

The most disturbing part of this development, for me and for others, was the anonymity of the officers. Yes, I know some police briefly claimed they might remove ids to avoid doxxing—which they feared might occur.

I worry more about the lack of accountability. If you can’t tell what agency—if any—the soldier-looking guys came from, how can you call them out for overreach? How can you tell whether they’re actual Federal agents, or well-equipped right wing militia members?

If the Wall of Moms can buy matching T-shirts, couldn’t the Proud Boys or some other group buy matching camo? And those tactical helmets with gas masks conceal as much of a person’s face as any Ku Klux Klan disguise (even pre-hood).

I also worry about the rumor that the president and some of his supporters tried to spark a culture war on the chance it might improve his polling numbers. If that could be a motivation, what else might be?

A group of unidentified Federal officers in unmarked gear guarding Federal facilities during protests in Washington DC turned out to be a riot team from the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
Turns out these UFOs in Washington DC were a riot team from the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty.

A July protest letter from 27 Senators reflects this unease over unaccountable anonymous agents acting against the First Amendment rights of protesters. And apparently they made a difference. All of the unidentified Federal officers withdrew from Washington, DC and Portland by late July. So far, no one has deployed them elsewhere.


Many thanks to “Unlawful Whatever” via The Sparrow Project for taking that chilling video from Portland and sharing it on Twitter. And to WSWS for the screen-capture.

I’m deeply grateful to Scott Stantis for exactly capturing my feelings on this topic, and I’m hoping to goodness that he and Andrews McMeel will see this as fair use, especially considering their “Contact Us” link kept returning a 404 Error, and GoComics sent me to an additional, unhelpful place. I really did try, people!

And finally I really want to thank CNN and Brendan Smialowski, via AFP/Getty, for the photo of the unidentified group on 14th Street in Washington DC, later identified as a Bureau of Prisons riot team.

Several signs promote a growing push to defund and demilitarize the police.

Ripe for protests

We were ripe for protests. We should have seen them coming. Some of us undoubtedly did.

The COVID-19 pandemic stripped all the systemic problems and weaknesses in our racist, inequitable society bare. They stare us in the face every day of our transformed lives. Every news cycle, the horrors pile up.

Cascades of catastrophe

An ever-changing number of states show uncontrolled spread of COVID. We’ve recorded more than five million cases of COVID in the USA. And more than 160,000 deaths. By the time this post goes live, there will be more. Of course—inevitably—Black, brown, and non-gender-conforming groups and communities take the hardest hit. Always.

Here’s a New York Times graph showing gains and losses in the Gross Domestic Product  (GDP) since the late 1940s. The deepest drops seem to have been around 2-3%, but in the second quarter of 2020 it dropped 9.5%, which looks really dramatic on the chart—a far deeper plunge than in any of the previous years shown.
From the New York Times

Approximately 16.4 million people currently face unemployment in the US. Our GDP dropped off the bottom of the chart in the second quarter. It’s officially a recession, but Washington Post columnist Robert J. Samuelson recently called for us to “call it what it is,” a Pandemic Depression. His arguments are compelling.

Meanwhile, millions of Americans are staring homelessness in the face, as short-term pandemic aid from the Federal Government runs out. Thanks to Senate inactivity, nothing is there to replace it.

If past is prelude, protests were inevitable

Oh, yes, we were ripe for protests. At crisis points like the one we’re in, people always take to the streets. A recent National Geographic article surveyed earlier protests in the USA, but you don’t have to stop at our borders. Just look at the unrest that swept several continents in 1848. Driven by civil unrest, famine, and accumulated outrage, these uprisings toppled governments and transformed many parts of the world—including the USA.

Archaeologists uncover shallow graves in Peru where child sacrifices were buried by the Chimú people e 500 years ago.
Courtesy of National Geographic

Crisis breeds desperate measures. Five hundred years ago, a climate crisis drove the Chimú people of Peru (the empire that preceded the Inca) to sacrifice hundreds of their own children.

We haven’t gone that far, but some of us do seem willing to send them, their teachers, and other school personnel back into classrooms with less-than-ideal safeguards. Was anyone surprised to see the North Paulding High School close after only a week?

In this now-infamous photo, 15-year-old Hannah Waters captured a crowded hallway at North Paulding High School in Georgia, where no one was social distancing and almost no one was wearing masks.
Photo by Hannah Waters, via AP and The Washington Post

Yes, it’s getting more violent. That was predictable, too.

When I started the First Amendment series, I had protests in mind. I thought it was important to remember that the First Amendment says, “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging . . . the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Dr. Martin Luther King called riots “the language of the unheard” in a 1966 interview with Mike Wallace on the TV show 60 Minutes. He explained how people can be pushed to violence, yet steadfastly argued for nonviolent protest. Unfortunately, many today have grown impatient.

Back at the start of the summer, the protests were mostly peaceful—except when exacerbated by forceful curfew enforcement, or a minority of agitators. Lately, however, we’ve seen a troubling uptick in violence.

Why the violence? Why now? It may be deepening desperation, sparked by the worsening death toll and unemployment picture. Perhaps it’s growing disillusionment, after a summer of protests that have sparked conversation—but no real action in response to people’s deepening needs. And it might be a partial reaction to the clear disregard by police and some authorities for the arguments protesters make.

We’re still ripe for protests. And I fear we’ll continue to be a powder keg till inequalities are ameliorated, help is delivered, and the pandemic abates.

In other words, don’t hold your breath. It’s not nearly over.


I deeply appreciate the New York Times for providing a graphic demonstration of the Second-Quarter 2020 drop in the US Gross Domestic Product, as compared with previous decades. Many thanks to National Geographic for the photo of the archaeological excavation of child-sacrifice graves in Peru. All respect to Hannah Waters, the brave 15-year-old who blew the whistle on her alma mater, North Paulding High School, with thanks to the AP and the Washington Post for making her photo available. Finally, I want to thank You Tube and 60 Minutes, for the historic Mike Wallace interview with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This post wouldn’t be the same without you!

Minneapolis police in riot gear advance in a line through billowing blue tear gas smoke, with their batons out.

With disrespect for all:

When authorities shut down journalists and protesters

American authorities attack journalists and protesters? That just ain’t right! As the First Amendment says, “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of . . . the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

Hyoung Chang’s press badge identifying him as a Denver Post photographer looks as if someone or something took a bite out of it. It’s still legible, but Chang says it was broken when a police officer’s projectile struck him.
Hyoung Chang, a Denver Post photographer, took this photo of his broken press pass after police fired “a projectile” at him. USA Today later reported the “projectile” actually was “two pepper balls [fired] directly at him.” (Hyoung Chang, via the New York Times)

Freedom of the Press has met The Right to Peaceably Assemble in the streets of many cities all over the USA, this summer. And both provisions of the First Amendment have too often been trampled by authorities who should know better.

When police themselves break the law

Don’t believe it? Watch this short video from VICE News.

No, these were clearly members of the press. Licensed and trained sworn officers should have known they had a right to be there. Law enforcement agents who knowingly break the law vividly illustrate why so many people have begun to protest that they need to be defunded, abolished, or at least redefined. If they themselves can’t be trusted to follow the law, why are we paying them and maintaining a police force at all?

Unfortunately, these aren’t the only documented cases. Journalists from two different agencies, The US Press Freedom Tracker and Nick Waters of Bellingcat, who created a Twitter thread to count incidents, each independently identified about 100 instances, just in the first weeks of protests. By June 6, Forbes reported “328 . . . and counting.”

As I write this, The US Press Freedom Tracker’s count is considerably higher: “600+ aggressions against the press during national Black Lives Matter protests,” 157 journalists attacked, and 51 journalists arrested. Their equipment hasn’t been spared, either. The US Press Freedom Tracker says police damaged equipment 43 times, and have searched or seized it 10 times.

The next video, from The Washington Post, shows new examples, in addition to some shown in the previous video.

I’ll share a link to one more video, to offer an even more comprehensive overview, and an international perspective. Although the video is in English, DW is a German news agency (hint: the part about attacks on the press ends 2 minutes before the video does).

How much harm are they doing?

When authorities attack journalists and protesters, it does a lot of harm. Trampled Constitutional rights are serious breaches of the law and deeply un-American. But these attacks also can do serious physical and psychological harm.

Most of the protests have been peaceful. And journalists should be completely off-limits. But this summer police have freely used a variety of so-called “less-lethal” weapons on both groups.

What is a “less-lethal” weapon? Police have a variety at their disposal. They used to be called “nonlethal,” but that turns out to be wrong. They can and have caused death.

This Washington Post illustration shows the kinds of projectiles a “less-lethal” weapon may fire. From left to right they are a 40 mm sponge grenade, with a note that says the foam tip detaches when fired; a 40 mm shell, and some of the kinds of things that can be loaded inside: a beanbag, a “baton” round, AKA “rubber bullets,” a “fin-stabilized round,” and smaller rubber balls. A silhouette of a human hand is shown for comparison. The 40 mm shell appears to be longer than a man’s palm is wide. (Washington Post)
(Washington Post)

Projectile weapons can leave bruises, lacerations, broken bones. If you’re hit in the eye like photographer Linda Tirado, you can be blinded. That’s why the American Academy of Ophthalmology called for a nationwide ban on the use of rubber bullets against protesters.

In a recent article USA Today quoted Charlie Mesloh, a certified instructor on the use of police projectiles and a professor at Northern Michigan University, who said, “On day one of training, they tell you, ‘Don’t shoot anywhere near the head or neck.’ That’s considered deadly force.

Eye doctors are no fans of tear gas or other chemical irritants, either. Neither are experts on respiratory diseases—especially in a time of COVID-19 pandemic. Tear gas causes a variety of effects. Most go away after a while. But people with respiratory problems can struggle with the effects for a long time.

Minneapolis police in riot gear advance in a line through billowing blue tear gas smoke, with their batons out.
Minneapolis police advance through tear gas toward a group of protesters. (Scott Olson/Getty Images, via NPR).

Why are the police acting this way?

This kind of police aggression toward journalists is not only unconstitutional. It’s also not normal. Why act this way? Why now?

As I discussed in previous post, it’s very difficult to hold police accountable in the current legal climate. But perhaps they feel more empowered than usual. Many commentators point to the president as part of the reason why that might be.

He’s been an outspoken critic—to the point where he’s used inflammatory, authoritarian phrases such as “enemy of the people” when speaking of the press. Various groups have protested this treatment, to no avail.

I don’t mean to say the president is the only reason for this change. Am I his fan? No. Is he the first president to have issues with the press? Hardly! Speaking truth to power is dangerous. But there’s something at work here that goes beyond Mr. Trump.

Police officers and police departments feel empowered to lash out against journalists as they never have before this summer. All too predictably, many of the journalists targeted also appear to be BIPOC and/or women.

When American authorities attack journalists and protesters, this is new in the Twenty-First Century. This is disturbing.

This  is dangerous.


I really want to thank Hyoung Chang, via the New York Times, for the photo of his broken press badge. I appreciate YouTube and VICE News for the first video, YouTube and The Washington Post for the second video, and YouTube and DW for the third. Many thanks also to the Washington Post for the excellent illustration and article on “Less-Lethal” police weapons and their dangers. And to NPR and photographer Scott Olson for the image of Minneapolis police in riot gear, striding through billows of tear gas smoke.

In this cartoon by Osama Hajjaj, a newspaper is torn apart by the personified logos of big-name Internet and social media players Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, and Google.

Freedom of the Press under attack

Important as the “sages of the ages” may have considered it to be, freedom of the press is under attack in the first quarter of the 21st Century. Many economic problems have beset our news media. Local newspapers have taken the hardest blows.

The business model that profitably supported newspapers and what we now consider “traditional” broadcast news media for decades has eroded out from under these organizations in the Age of the Internet.

In this cartoon by Osama Hajjaj, a newspaper is torn apart by the personified logos of big-name Internet and social media players Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, and Google.
(Osama Hajjaj/Cartooning for Peace/Global Geneva)

Freedom of the press is under attack from social media that draw eyes away from paid news sources, too. News aggregators depend on them, but they also freely borrow from them, reaping the benefit of their paid professional journalists.

This quote-image from Indian author Arundhati Roy says, “The crisis of modern democracy is a profound one. Free elections, a free press and an independent judiciary mean little when the free market has reduced them to commodities available on sale to the highest bidder.”
(AZ Quotes)

This changing landscape drains surviving news agencies drier and drier. The average regional newspaper that still exists has seen its staff of professional journalists dwindle down to a hard-working, multi-tasking few. Efforts such as Report for America (modeled on Teach for America, but a separate entity) can’t fill that gap.

It also has trained people to expect free news. I hear complaints all the time from people who have followed my links to a fuller discussion on a news source, only to face a paywall.

In this photo from March, 2020, the owner of a smaller local newspaper, the Sacramento News & Review, holds up an announcement that the paper is suspending publication, although it appears to have made a comeback since then.
(Terry Hagz/Sacramento News & Review/L.A. Times)

Free news, “echo chambers,” and the rise of fake news

Recent research by Reuters found that most people aren’t willing to pay for news. Those who do pay for a subscription rarely have more than one. And even those willing to pay may suffer subscription fatigue” from repeatedly being confronted with pleas to pay, wherever they go. Personally, I have at least ten subscriptions—I just tried to count them all and was kinda shocked—but I still get subscription fatigue.

This whole dynamic can lead to a range of problems. We all have heard how divisiveness in politics is exacerbated when people stick to their own echo chambers of information and opinion. Their confirmation bias grows ever more entrenched when they only listen to people who agree with them.

This quote-image from Franklin D. Roosevelt says, “Freedom of the press is essential to the preservation of a democracy; but ther is a difference between freedom and license. Editorialists who tell downright lies in order to advance their own agendas do more to discredit the press than all the censors in the world.”
(AZ Quotes)

Mistrust of information from the outside, and uneven or sporadic exposure to free news, that may or may not be accurate, poses an existential treat to democracy. Confirmation bias can cause people to avoid information that may make them question their beliefs. Even if it’s true.

This makes them vulnerable to chicanery. Malicious actors or propagandists have learned how to use this mistrust for their own ends. Roosevelt inveighed against “Editorialists who tell downright lies” in the quotation above. But in the Age of the Internet, they don’t even have to identify themselves.

This quote-image from Kathleen Hall Jamieson says, “’Spin’ is a polite word for deception. Spinners mislead by means that range from subtle omissions to outright lies. Spin paints a false picture of reality by bending facts, mischaracterizing the words of others, ignoring or denying crucial evidence, or just ‘spinning a yarn’—by making things up.”
(AZ Quotes)

People with no clear reference points and a distrust of established news agencies fall for fake news such as “Pizzagate” (referenced in an earlier post in this series). Or any other malign messages that foreign agents and domestic ideologues decide to package.

In this cartoon from Mexican artist Antonio Rodriguez, a tightrope-walker holding a pencil makes his way along a high wire, over a newspaper-like headline that reads “Fake News.”
(Antonio Rodriguez/Cartooning for Peace/Global Geneva)

A misinformed electorate

This is how wild assertions get spread and believed. They can be life-threatening messages, such as the idea that one might cure Covid with an injection of bleach, or that wearing a mask during a pandemic is somehow weak.

Or they may be democracy-threatening, such as the idea that one leader or political party is coming to take away all the guns belonging to members of the other. Or that voting fraud is rampant, so it’s futile to vote, or it’s okay to place burdensome restrictions on voting.

This quote-image from Melissa Bean says, “Mr. Speaker, democracy works best when the American electorate is engaged and informed.”
(AZ Quotes)

We can’t ignore or wish away the fact that freedom of the press is under attack in our world today. Misleading messages and widely-believed falsehoods are the very opposite of what prevails in a functional democracy.

If the United States—indeed, to a great extent if the world—does not soon learn to counter this pernicious trend, we stand to lose all of our freedoms.

The quote-image from 44th U.S. President Barack Obama says, “We have to uphold a free press and freedom of speech because, in the end, lies and misinformation are no match for the truth.”
(AZ Quotes)


Deepest thanks to Global Geneva and Cartooning for Peace, for two images: I also thank Jordanian cartoonist Osama Hajjaj for the unsettling image of the effect of all too many social media/Internet forces on professional journalism, and Mexican cartoonist Antonio Rodriguez, for his “tightrope over fake news” image.

Many thanks to the L.A. Times, photographer Terry Hagz, and owner Jeff vonKaenel and the Sacramento News & Review, for the “Suspending Publication” photo. I’m pleased to discover their demise wasn’t permanent.

And heartfelt gratitude to AZ Quotes, for the assorted quote-images used in this article: For Indian author Arundhati Roy’s analysis of the free market’s influence on free elections, courts and press. And for the warning from FDR about false messages in the news, long before the term “fake news” had been coined. For the description of “spin” from Kathleen Hall Jamieson. Once more, for the quote from former U.S. Rep. Melissa Bean (D-Ill.) on the importance of an engaged and informed electorate. And lastly for the Barack Obama quote about lies versus the truth (from a speech given in Estonia in 2014).

This cartoon by Jim Morin shows an old-fashioned manual typewriter with “FREE PRESS” on one row of keys. In the upper left corner, it says, “The Keys to a Strong, Enduring Democracy.”

The importance of Freedom of the Press

Today my First Amendment series shifts its focus to the importance of Freedom of the Press. Of the “four freedoms” enshrined in the First Amendment, I take this one especially personally.

This cartoon by Jim Morin shows an old-fashioned manual typewriter with “FREE PRESS” on one row of keys. In the upper left corner, it says, “The Keys to a Strong, Enduring Democracy.”
(Morin-toons/Cartooning for Peace/Global Geneva)

My first paying job was writing stories for a local “shopper” newspaper (back when those existed). Journalism was my undergraduate minor (only because my school didn’t offer a major). I’ve been a freelance or staff reporter for several publications over the years. And I taught journalism or publications along with art for all but three semesters of my teaching career.

The past three posts in this series (from July 2, July 10, and July 16, 2020) have taken a look at the beginning of the First Amendment. If you’ve been following them, you probably can recite this article of the Bill of Rights with me from memory by this time.

The part relevant to today’s discussion is: “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom . . . of the press.”

How important is this freedom?

The Founders were very clear about the importance of a free press. Thomas Jefferson (despite his deeply troubling record on racism) had a clear-eyed certainty when it came to free dissemination of the news.

This quote-image from Thomas Jefferson says, “If I had to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate to prefer the latter.”
(American Center New Delhi)

Jefferson wasn’t alone in his evaluation. Through the centuries since those words were written and ratified, other influential thinkers of their times have agreed.

This image-quote from Wendell Wilkie, an influential 20th-Century political voice in the USA, says, “Freedom of the press is the staff of life, for any vital democracy.”
(AZ Quotes)

Wilkie and his sometimes political opponent, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, agreed on several issues. One was the importance of Freedom of the Press.

This quote-image from Associate US Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter says, “Freedom of speech and the press are essential to the enlightenment of a free people and in restraining those who wield power.”
(AZ Quotes)

Justice Frankfurter and his near-contemporary Walter Cronkite occupied different spheres of the national stage. Yet they also both saw Freedom of the Press as essential for the health of the democracy.

This image quote from 20th-Century news anchor Walter Cronkite says, “Freedom of the press is not just important to democracy, it is democracy.”
(AZ Quotes)

In future posts, I plan to explore the most virulent forces threatening freedom of the press, and through it our freedom, and fate our form of government itself.


Many thanks to Jim Morin, Cartooning for Peace, and Global Geneva for the “Free-Press Typewriter” image. I’m grateful to the American Center New Delhi on Facebook, for the quote from Thomas Jefferson. Many thanks to AZ Quotes for Wendell Wilkie’s evaluation of democracy’s need for a free press. And to AZ Quotes again, for Felix Frankfurter’s observation on the importance of free speech and press. And finally AZ Quotes for yet a third time in a row, for the words from Kansas City’s own Walter Cronkite. I appreciate you all!

This illustrated quote from author N. K. Jemisin says, “If the first words out of your mouth are to cry ‘political correctness!’, chances are very, very high that you are in fact part of the problem.”

Freedom of Speech Part Two: Not a crime but not okay

Do we really have as much freedom of speech as we think? Do we have more than we realize? Or have we misunderstood the whole concept? Two weeks ago, I started a series of posts on the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Last week I discussed “When Speech is a Crime,” exploring the exceptions to the First Amendment.

Now might be a good moment to remember what the First Amendment actually says.

The text of the First Amendment to the US Constitution reads: “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.”
Many thanks to Indivisible Door County WI

In my first post of this series, I asked, “Is the First Amendment an aspiration, or a reality?” I got some pushback in comments online. As one commenter put it, “Of course the First Amendment is a reality. It’s the law!

But that might be an “alternative fact” in daily practice. The founding documents also say “all men are created equal,” and there’s a culture-wide concept that “equal justice under law” is a guiding principle. We haven’t even come close to getting those right, yet. Kinda like with the slaves in Texas between the Emancipation Proclamation and Juneteenth. Just ‘cuz they wrote it, that “don’t mean we got it.”

Freedom of speech, and its limitations

As with all broad declarations of principle, the devil lurks amongst the details. Turns out, freedom of speech is a thorny issue, even (or perhaps especially) in the USA. The section of the First Amendment relevant to today’s post says, “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech . . . .

This quote from Benjamin Franklin, reversed out of a painting of Franklin, reads, “Without Freedom of thought there can be no such thing as wisdom; and no such thing as public liberty, without freedom of speech.”
Courtesy of “Relatably

That all seems pretty straightforward. But even when the speaker is not committing a crime, s/he may hesitate to say something. There are times when even protected speech may technically be legal—but it also may be socially “not okay.”

Political correctness and “Cancel Culture”

In recent decades several terms have bubbled up from the cultural ferment: “Politically correct,” “cancel culture,” or “call-out culture.” Sometimes people abuse their new power gained through “the leveling effects of social media.” But still I agree with Spencer Kornhaber that it’s less a matter of “cancellation” than accountability.

Whatever you call it, these terms are used defensively. They push back against a changing social norm that abhors racist, sexist or gender-identity-denigrating speech or actions.

The definition for “Cancel Culture” given in this image reads: “Cancel culture is a form of public shaming that tries to hold someone accountable for their actions by publicly calling out their behavior as problematic.”
Courtesy of Parentology.

The pushers-back complain that these shifting social norms result in a climate that stifles freedom of self-expression. An excellent recent example of this can be found in a letter that, while set to be published in the October 2020 issue of Harper’s Magazine, has already found its way into wide circulation. The inevitable response to this pushback also is easy to find.

Many, including several prominent comedians, have protested that political correctness “kills humor.” Those who disagree counter by saying what’s dying is out-of-date schtick that relies on bigotry for humor. More on that below.

Thought police? Really?

The complainers also say the country is more and more pervasively dominated by “thought police.” That to step out of line, especially on college campuses, is to risk scorn, ridicule, and ostracism. The critique of campus culture has some merit, as far as it goes. Sometimes unpopular speakers, especially those who support white supremacy or are known for hate speech, are booked for events on some college campuses. Almost inevitably, students have raised loud protests.

This back-and-forth has led to conservative-leaning students saying they feel unwelcome in some classes. They report being afraid to speak their views in classrooms or campus forums, for fear of being shouted down or shunned. The liberal-arts ideal of a “marketplace of ideas” never included this.

This quote from Noam Chomsky says, “If we do not believe in freedom of speech for those we despise we do not believe in it at all.”
Might note that Chomsky signed the Harper’s letter. (Courtesy of Minds Media.)

A short “Political Correctness” debate

Lest this discussion get too heavy, let’s pause for a short “political correctness” debate in the form of a meme war. Contemporary social media culture seems awash in such soundbite messaging. And memes fly in especially thick flurries and flocks when it comes to political correctness. Why not let the memes duke it out?

This photo montage consists of three photo-based memes. 1. In the upper left photo, an angry young woman seems to yell. The meme says, “Judging people by their race and sex is wrong . . .  I wish you privileged white men would get that.” 2. The upper right photo shows a snarling miniature schnauzer dog. The meme says, “That moment you realize . . . that “political correctness is the P.C. euphemism for censorship.” 3. The third is a photo quote from comedian George Carlin that is often used as a meme. It says, “Political Correctness is Fascism pretending to be manners.”
(Clockwise: Politically Incorrect Humor, Lather, via MemeCenter, and Meme Generator)
This photo montage consists of two cartoon images and a photo-based meme. 1. In the upper left image, from Some EE Cards, a man and a woman in old-fashioned clothing embrace each other. The words say, “When I complain about ‘political correctness’ what I’m really saying is that I want to be able to act like a douche without people pointing out that I’m acting like a douche.” 2. In the upper right photo-meme a man gives the camera a squinty-eyed look. The meme reads, “Claim to be against political correctness . . . Call torture an enhanced interrogation technique.” 3. The cartoon at the bottom is by B. Deutsch, titled, “The Straight, Ablebodied, Cis, Rich, White Man’s Burden.” It shows a slender young white man with a day-pack on his back, yelling at four other people bending with effort beneath much larger, bulkier bags. His listeners are a man with a prosthetic, a short-haired woman, a person with vaguely Asian or Hispanic features, and a Black man. The young man with the small pack says, “Why are you people complaining? Can’t you see I’ve got a burden, too?”
(Clockwise: SomEEcards, and “Chris1787763,QuickMeme, and Claire’s Passion Blog/Ampersand by B. Deutch.)
In this photo-based meme, the puffin struts across a grassy surface. The meme says, “Just because your (sic) offended doesn’t mean your (sic) right . . . Just as much as being offensive doesn’t mean your (sic) right either”
(“unusedimgur,” via Imgur)

There now. Who says humor is dead? There are times when we may be tempted to side with the Puffin. Unfortunately, the puffin meme supports a false equivalency.

The philosophical throughline: underlying bigotry

As far as I can tell, there’s one huge problem with the arguments against political correctness. It lies in the kind of “truth” and “humor” they defend.

That “freedom” they desire? It often turns out to be the freedom to use racist or homophobic language. The “truth” they defend? All too often it’s not objective truth, but instead derisive racial or gender-identity stereotypes. The “humor” they want to keep alive boils down to racial slurs and ethnic jokes.

Dig down to the bottom of the “anti-P.C.” arguments, and you’ll mostly find white privilege defending hate speech.

You may be surprised to learn that hate speech normally is protected speech—at least, in the United States. Mind your expressions of racial hate in other parts of the world, though.

Hate Speech, the ultimate “not a crime but not okay.”

Defined as “distasteful, offensive, or hateful speech that causes others to feel grief, anger, or fear,” hate speech truly does offend. But as long as people stop short of hate crimes, they can say pretty much any awful thing they want to.

And they definitely do say despicable things. There are lots of reasons why, but it all boils down to one. White privilege doesn’t want to concern itself with others’ problems and feelings, because it’s never had to do that before. Well, sorry to all you white snowflakes in your gated communities. That’s got to change.

Outside her St. Louis mansion on June 28, 2020, Patricia McCloskey points a handgun at Black Lives Matter protesters, one of whom also appears to be armed. Her husband Mark McCloskey stands farther back behind a hedge with a rifle. Later, Mark McCloskey said he was “scared for my life, protecting my wife.”
Outside her St. Louis mansion on June 28, 2020, Patricia McCloskey points a handgun at Black Lives Matter protesters, one of whom also appears to be armed. Her husband Mark McCloskey stands farther back behind a hedge with a rifle. Later, Mark McCloskey said he was “scared for my life, protecting my wife.” (Photo: CNN).

An unaccustomed concern

I understand. Always having to accommodate another culture takes a lot of effort. You must always think about the other culture’s standards, ideas, perceptions, and understandings. Even if you don’t “get” them.

It’s really hard. You’ll get things wrong, and there’s a price to pay when you do. Sometimes you’re wrong, no matter what you do, just because of what you look like, or where you came from. And you never, ever, get a break from it. That’s uncomfortable and exhausting.

I can almost hear all the Black folks out there saying, “Mmm-mm, you know that’s right.” Because that’s the reality they live every day.

But white people’s moans about “political correctness” are whimpers of a dying privilege. Sooner or later—actually, about 2045 or so—demographics will have their way with this country. No matter how many pathetic little (I’m sorry: “Big, beautiful”) walls we build.

Rather than huddle inside our compounds, if we white people are wise we’ll start expanding our horizons, and working for justice.

This illustrated quote from author N. K. Jemisin says, “If the first words out of your mouth are to cry ‘political correctness!’, chances are very, very high that you are in fact part of the problem.”
Courtesy of Gecko And Fly.


Many thanks to Indivisible Door County, WI for the First Amendment’s text. I am grateful to Relatably, for the quote-image from Benjamin Franklin, and to Parentology for the “cancel culture” definitionDeepest gratitude to MindsMedia, for the Noam Chomsky quote-image.

MEME-WAR: I’m grateful to Politically Incorrect Humor for the “Judging people” meme, to Lather, via MemeCenter for the Schnauzer image, and to MemeGenerator (no legible additional credit) for the George Carlin quote.

I’m also grateful to SomeEEcards and “Chris 1787763” for the “act like a douche” image, to QuickMeme (no additional credit) for the “P.C. but Torture” meme, and to Ampersand by B. Deutch, via Claire’s Passion Blog on the Penn State University website, for “The Straight, Ablebodied, Cis, Rich, White Man’s Burden” cartoon.

Many thanks for the peace-puffin meme to “unusedimgur,” via Imgur.

MORE IMAGES: Many thanks to CNN for the photo of the McCloskeys confronting BLM protesters, and to Gecko and Fly for the image-quote from the wonderful sf author N. K. Jemisin.

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