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Empowering Voters. Defending Democracy    JOINDONATE
Empowering Voters. Defending Democracy    JOINDONATE


The following is a speech given by John O’Connell. The Executive Editor of the Herald Community Newspapers, to the League of Women Voters of Southwest Nassau at their Annual Dinner meeting on June 13, 2013.  



There is a reason for alarm when we think of the state of politics, public service and corruption in New York State.  The greatest alarm, in my view, does NOT come from the fact that incumbents seek political gain through redistricting and deal making.  It is the nature of that old beast.  Nor is it a fatal flaw in the body politic that some elected officials, like some of all of us, are greedy.  That was ever true.  Nor does the loudest alarm sound because too many public servants use their office for selfish gains, turning quid pro quo from an axiom into a shameless way of life.

What we should all find most alarming is the sickening apathy that these acts of civil treason have caused among the citizenry.  Without active, ample participation in our democratic system, power flows to the extremes, as a river’s strength sways to the banks when the middle is blocked, in this case, by the silt of accumulated clubhouse politics.

To repurpose a famous concept from Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, the best antidote for a corrupt democracy is more democracy.  And to get more democracy, it will be insufficient to just get more people to vote.

Our society must educate, because an informed electorate validates our system and tends to choose leaders and decide issues based on legitimate reasons, however we vociferously disagree on who’s got the best reasons.  My question is this:  Who does the educating in civics, in the search for the truth, in the critical thinking required to properly elect the best representatives in a republic?

I submit that we citizens are educated by six teachers:  Our family; our friends; our faith; the schools; the media; and by good-government organizations.

And so my words come now to an even more root cause for alarm.  As though massive corruption wasn’t bad enough.  As though the disinterest that corruption and other causes have brought on isn’t enough.  The greatest danger to our society and our health as a nation is that most of the sources of education in our society have become polarizers instead of teachers of truth and trainers in the skills of life-long learning and critical thinking.

Our Families and Friends – Teachers 1 and 2 – have always been our first sources of information and often the source of our initial views on politicians and national and local issues.  The thoughts we learn from these sources are only as good as the information they have, and will be as polarized as the sources that informed their views.  Nonetheless, our first understandings of issues, of right, of wrong, come from the to and fro at home or with our friends and peers at work or on campuses, the arguments at the dinner table, the debates between friends, and from strong but lucid disagreements that often reveal truths.

For those of us who are people of faith – Teacher 3 – many of our secular actions are animated by our spiritual beliefs.  We do believe that our creator endowed us certain unalienable rights, and with those rights come responsibilities.

C.S. Lewis wrote that “When faith dies, the culture dies, our civilization dies, the people die.”

Of course, it’s not faith, but how well we practice that faith, that leads us on the right course. Righteous men and women also fail in those responsibilities, and righteous is not a synonym for perfect.

We can call the schools our 4th teacher…Some educators – for many reasons – demand too little of their students in history, political science, political philosophy and civics.  If, as the Irish playwright and statesman William Butler Yeats is attributed as saying, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire,” I fear, in those subjects, the flame is barely hot and throws off too little light.

According to a recent study by the National Assessment of Education Progress, only 20 percent of fourth graders, 17 percent of eighth graders and 12 percent of high school seniors were proficient on a nationwide test of history knowledge.  “The specifics are startling,” reported one newspaper.  Few fourth graders seemed to know why Abraham Lincoln was important, according to a story about the study in the New York Times. Less than a third of eighth graders could say what advantages American soldiers had over the British during the American Revolution.

And only 2 percent of the 12th graders could say what social problem the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v Board of Education sought to correct.  In that same survey in 2012, while 96 percent of the college graduates knew Lady Gaga was a musical performer, only 17 percent knew the source of the phrase: Government of the people, by the people, for the people.”  Less than half of the college graduates knew the Battle of the Bulge was in World War II.  I imagine some must have thought it was in the New Jersey governor’s house.

In too many ways classrooms have become secular pulpits preaching one side’s dogma instead of educating young people in the ways and means of discovering the truth for themselves.  In an age of political correctness and relativism, the search for the truth  —  in my opinion — has been subordinated to a supreme directive of being sensitive to all opinions, giving equal stature, offending no one, teaching nothing absolute.

But schools, so overburdened with mandates, with testing, with so much to teach and so little time, can do only the best they can to teach the value, the process and the critical importance of participating in our democracy.

Too much of the media – our 5th teacher – has also joined the polarization of America.  NPR, FOX, CNBC and CNN, The New York Times have reputations, among many, as having chosen sides and slanting their coverage in favor of one side of an issue.  The Society of Professional Journalists demands of its new members an unbiased search for the truth and well developed skills to report it.  Alas, as not every politician is incorruptible, not every journalist can eliminate human bias, though they should have a bias only to the truth.

Many of today’s journalists like to think of themselves as advocacy journalists.  While I recognize that reporting to espouse a particular cause makes interesting reading, and often provides supportive information to like-minded issue advocates, it is often not journalism, and I submit that advocacy journalism could arguably be an oxymoron.  There is a place for the honest advocacy journalist, to get out the truth on issues that have been made opaque by biased manipulators, but the temptation to omit contrary views – and even contrary facts – is strong.  It remains good journalism however, to advocate for fairness, to investigate and report on those who would do harm to the people.  It is especially an existential journalistic task to report on those on the government payroll who would elevate themselves at the expense of taxpayers’ good and welfare.

At its best, journalism is that unlicensed profession in which its practitioners spend their time learning and telling.  Like the Roman heralds, their duty is to discover the news and promulgate, distribute, report that message far and wide, to herald it.  The tribune’s message – the news – was carried by horse, by chariot, much later by pamphlet, by newspapers posted on poles, then telegraph and radio and more newspapers, by TV and now via the Internet.

A concern now is that the media, as Marshall McLuhan said decades ago, has become the message.  So enthralled with the latest gadgets, the ease of blogging, the speed of Facebook and Twitter, the convenience of mobile messaging, too many opinionated writers declare themselves journalists, and report their views rather than the facts and a clear and mature understanding of those facts.  This is bad for journalism, but far worse than that, it is bad for information consumers and those who may make voting and other decisions based not on reasoned and enlightened truth but by how compelling the writer’s way is with words.  As information consumers we must be wary of our sources and practice discernment, think critically, confirm facts and believe what we read with a skeptic’s caution.

The last teacher, the last source of education available to us to help us learn about civics, to provide forums for candidates to debate, to advocate NOT for this side or that but to advocate for a fair and truth-dominated and impartial understanding of voting, redistricting, and issues is why we are here tonight.  Groups that advocate for open government, for sunshine on the body politic, are – like sunshine itself – the vitamin D of our good civic health, with the D standing for democracy.

The League off Women Voters has long stood as an impartial non-partisan advocate for a just and fair electoral process, for informed voters, for open communication, for balanced and insightful political and issue education.  The need, it seems to me, for reasonably objective political-process activism and democratic advocacy, without regard for party, has never been more critical.  Too many of us vote by race or ethnicity or gender.  Too many of us decide based on how he or she looks.  Is he tall, is he handsome, does he have a full head of hair, is he telegenic, does he or she dress well, is she the right body type or pretty or just the perfect balance of femininity and strength?  Too many of us vote as though we’re speed dating.

I quote the legendary Carl Sagan, who I do not think was speaking of politics or voting. but was speaking about the study of science and the universe.

“One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle.  We’re no longer interested in finding the truth.  The bamboozle has captured us.  It is simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken.  Once you give the charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.”        

With all of this, it is amazing that our democracy has lasted this long.  But our democracy has lasted this long because enough people…Care About It…Cherish It…Fight and Die For It…Protect It…Report Honestly About It…Serve It…Teach It…and Advocate For It.

The League of Women Voters is one of those teachers and advocates.

Good thing…..Good thing for all of us.     


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