All posts by Sheila

Guns And Protests

The pandemic, the economy and the Black Lives Matter Protests have dominated news coverage the past few months, joined by politics as the Presidential campaigns begin in earnest–but although long-simmering public policy debates have received less attention, that doesn’t mean those issues have gone away.

Which brings me to one of America’s longest, nastiest and most intractable standoffs: guns.

In January, Bartholomew County, Indiana’s gun rights activists asked that county’s commissioners to declare Bartholomew County a Second Amendment “sanctuary.” According to The Republic, the local newspaper, 

The group, called the Bartholomew County Indiana 2A United Sanctuary, has sent a draft of a proposed ordinance to the Bartholomew County commissioners, Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Department and Columbus Mayor Jim Lienhoop, said Chris Imel of Ladoga in Montgomery County. Imel is the group’s organizer and a former Bartholomew County deputy coroner, serving in 2017.

As of mid-afternoon Tuesday, the private social media group had 4,471 members on Facebook. Imel said he created the Facebook page a week ago.

The group believes the “sanctuary” is necessary to prevent the enforcement of certain gun control measures that–in their opinions– violate the Second Amendment.

The measures that they assert “violate the 2d Amendment” include emergency protection orders, enforcement of gun background checks, and Red Flag laws. (Indiana’s Red Flag law allows authorities to disarm people who pose a danger to themselves or others; such laws typically include due process provisions allowing gun owners to retrieve their weapons through the courts if they can demonstrate they are mentally competent.)

The Bartholomew County Indiana 2A United Sanctuary group claims the proposed ordinance would allow local officials to “refuse to cooperate with state and federal firearm laws” perceived to violate the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, including any future proposed restrictions on clip capacity, silencers, bump stocks, bayonet mounts, among other items, according to the proposed ordinance.

In other words, the desired “Sanctuary” would direct law enforcement in the county to ignore pretty much any state law limiting firearms in any way. (It did make an exception for federal law.)

The Bartholomew gun group  is not, unfortunately, just an isolated group of rural Hoosiers who don’t understand how laws work. They have lots of company.

As of Jan. 7, more than 418 counties, cities and towns in 21 states have passed Second Amendment sanctuary ordinances, including locations in Illinois, Colorado, New Mexico, Washington and Virginia, according to Gun Owners of America, a gun-rights group.

On Friday night, Jennings County officials signed a resolution stating the county is now a Second Amendment sanctuary. There is no indication that the resolution signed in Jennings County was approved by any county or city councils or boards before it was signed by the sheriff and others, including Rep. Jim Lucas, R-Seymour.

If the sweep of this “Wild West” movement isn’t unsettling enough, the Brookings Institution recently issued a report titled “How Covid-19 is Changing the Gun Debate.

Starting in mid-April, anti-COVID-19 lockdown protestors stormed and shut down everything from statehouses to Subway restaurants with assault weapons and pipe wrenches. These protests are being framed around gun rights and free speech issues. Protests are allegedly about fully re-opening the economy following state-sanctioned shutdowns. Protestors appear to perceive that quarantine measures to keep them safe and reduce the spread of COVID-19 are violations of their civil liberties. In turn, they act out their frustrations through expressions of their 1st and 2nd Amendment rights. Anti-lockdown protests have now occurred in 31 states across the country and gun sales surged to nearly 2 million in March.

Not only have gun sales surged, but according to the report, they’ve surged in liberal states–despite the fact that the armed lockdown protestors are clearly Trump supporters. The researchers were unable to tell whether this data represents purchases by liberals (arming to protect themselves in the upcoming civil war?) or by conservatives living in liberal states (adding to their burgeoning armories?)

America is currently experiencing the simultaneous effects of the worst aspects of our cultural history: deeply-ingrained racism, an inadequate social safety net, a radical individualism that disdains even the slightest appeal to the common good, and the celebration of anti-intellectualism.

The racist and anti-intellectual elements gave us Trump–and his heavily-armed base.

 

 

 

Equipping Voters

On this blog, I frequently share concerns that American levels of civic literacy are too low to sustain democratic self-government.

I’d like to expand on those concerns.

Civic knowledge–or more accurately, its lack– is also linked to two aspects of the broader unrest we are experiencing: we need to restore civility and honesty to our public debates; and we need to encourage not just voter turnout–important as that is– but to improve the number of Americans who cast informed ballots.

Americans will always argue, but my research has convinced me that civic ignorance– defined as inadequate knowledge of America’s history, Constitution and Bill of Rights—creates conflicts that are wholly unnecessary, and worse, encourages the partisan dishonesty and propaganda we see all around us.

When people don’t understand the structure of federalism or separation of powers (only 26% of Americans can name the 3 branches of government), when they don’t know that the Bill of Rights limits both government and popular majorities, it’s easy for partisans to generate suspicion that government is operating in ways that it shouldn’t, and to undermine trust in our governing institutions.

As we’ve seen, when people distrust their government, and are suspicious of its motives, disrespect and hostility infect public attitudes and intensify public debates.

And when government really isn’t operating properly, when–as now– there’s clear evidence of incompetence or corruption or both, it’s especially important that citizens be able to communicate–that we occupy a common reality and argue from the same basic premises. When Americans are faced with evidence that America has failed to live up to its ideals, it’s critically important that we all understand what those ideals were.

America was the first country in the world to base citizenship on behavior rather than identity—on how people act rather than who they are. Initially, of course, that ideal of equality was only extended to white guys with property, but the principle–the ideal– represented an important paradigm shift.

America also redefined liberty. Liberty was no longer the individual’s “freedom” to do whatever the monarch or the church decided was the “right thing.”

Instead, government was supposed to protect your ability to do your own thing, so long as you did not thereby harm the person or property of someone else, and so long as you were willing to respect others’ right to do likewise.  Of course, Americans still can and do argue about what harm looks like, and what kinds of harm justify government intervention (and we seem to have a particularly difficult time with that thing about respecting the rights of others to do their thing.)

Civility and civil peace would be significantly enhanced if more Americans understood that the Bill of Rights requires a lot of “live and let live” forbearance, and especially if they understood that the Bill of Rights restrains government from doing some of the things that majorities at any given time want government to do.

If–as I devoutly hope–we eject Trump and his horrendous administration in November–and we turn to the long-term project of “cleaning up” corruption, incompetence and racism in government, voter education writ large must be the first order of business.

Voter education includes more than how to register, and how and where to vote, as important as those practical instructions are. (Helpful websites like this one from the Indiana Citizen have that information.)

For voter education to facilitate the casting of informed ballots, it has to include a basic understanding of how government is structured and operates, and an understanding of the duties and responsibilities of the office being filled. What does the job entail? What are the constraints that limit the office, the checks and balances? Do the candidates (unlike Trump) understand those limits?

The ability to cast an informed ballot requires information about the candidates and their positions on the issues. It also requires knowing how the incumbent has performed, assuming that incumbent is running for re-election.

This is precisely where our local information environments are failing. There has been a massive loss of local newspapers (over 2000 in the last few years)—and we get very little information about local government from the hollowed-out ones that remain.(The Indianapolis Star, is a case in point.)

In the run-up to elections, local newspapers used to analyze and fact-check political ads. Today, the general public is left to get its information from mostly partisan sources. Citizens must decide which of those sources are trustworthy and which are irremediably biased. One of the most helpful tools a citizen can have in making those determinations is a solid understanding of American government.

In the era of Trump, an understanding of elementary logic would also be helpful….

 

 

The Pandemic And The Constitution

Faculty at the O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs, where I teach, decided to put together a special course addressing issues raised by the pandemic. Those of us involved will each teach one class session; mine, unsurprisingly, will look at the civil liberties issues involved. The question I will explore is whether and how much government can limit individual rights in order to discharge its duty to protect citizens’ health and lives.

When I began to do some research in preparation for the class, I found the pandemic raising a more significant number of constitutional issues than I had anticipated. Many of those issues lack clear answers.

One of the most visible—and contentious—of those issues involves federalism. Federalism, as readers of this blog know, is the structure under which government jurisdiction is divided between federal, state and local units of government. What does the law say about the role of the federal government in a pandemic? What powers are reserved to the states?

There has been a great deal of public and official confusion over where various responsibilities lie; the President has asserted his authority to over-rule governors on several matters, and at the same time has disclaimed responsibility for tasks that he says are state responsibilities. Several of his statements have been inconsistent with the Constitution (I know–you’re shocked), which vests primary responsibility with the states, and anticipates support, co-ordination and assistance from the federal government.

Other questions: Does a pandemic allow government to impose more stringent limits on the First Amendment right to assemble? This issue arises in several ways: citizens have  protested state orders requiring masks and social distancing (some of those protestors have been armed). Those eruptions have been much smaller (and weirder) than the massive  Black Lives Matter demonstrations following the murder of George Floyd–but both challenge efforts to control the pandemic.

Then there are the shutdowns, the “stay-in-place” orders. Here, the law seems pretty clear; ever since a 1905 case—Jacobsin v. Massachusetts—the Supreme Court has upheld the right of government to impose quarantines and require vaccinations. (Government does have to demonstrate the reasonableness of those measures and their utility in ameliorating the threat of contagion.)

What about interstate travel, which the Supreme Court has long held to be a fundamental right? We’ve seen some governors restricting people from entering their states from so-called “hot spots.” Can they do that?

We are hearing a lot about new cellphone apps being developed to permit “contact tracing.” That technology has been met with considerable alarm from privacy advocates and organizations concerned about increasing government surveillance. The potential for misuse is high–and limitations on use of these technologies remain legally ambiguous.

The right to vote is obviously a critically-important constitutional right (not to mention a necessary guarantor of democracy) and the pandemic has further enabled efforts at vote suppression. Conflicts about the availability of absentee ballots for people fearful of the Coronavirus have already erupted, and efforts to expand vote-by-mail are being frantically resisted by Republicans. (The debate is further complicated by the evident inability of many states to handle increased voting by mail.)

Several states have used pandemic restrictions to justify denying women access to abortion. There is considerable debate about the degree to which those restrictions can be imposed, and a case from Texas (of course!) has been appealed to the Supreme Court.

The First Amendment’s right of Assembly and its Free Exercise Clause have both been cited by religious organizations—primarily churches—that are challenging limitations on in-person gatherings. In the cases of which I’m aware, the churches have lost.

Incarcerated persons, and those being detained by ICE face hugely increased medical risks and unique constitutional questions: what about an inmate’s right to consult with his or her lawyer? At what point do the conditions of confinement–the likelihood of contagion– rise to the level of “cruel and unusual punishment”?

A fascinating case that has recently been filed raises an increasingly important First Amendment Free Speech/Free Press issue: can sources of deliberate disinformation be held liable for damages? The case is Washington League for Increased Transparency and Ethics v. Fox News .The complaint alleges that Fox News violated the state’s Consumer Protection Act and acted in bad faith, both by disseminating false information about the novel coronavirus through its television news broadcasts and by minimizing the danger posed by the virus as COVID-19 began to explode into a pandemic.

It is highly unlikely that the Washington League will prevail, but the lawsuit raises some profound questions about the nature of speech that might be considered the equivalent of “falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater.”

And you thought the only thing to fear was the Coronavirus itself…

 

 

A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Words

One of the most significant ways today’s protests differ from uprisings in the 60s is the ubiquity of cellphone cameras. It’s one thing to hear verbal descriptions of improper behavior–quite another to see it.

Historians tell us that it wasn’t until the Viet Nam war was televised that American public revulsion ended it.

When there’s video, when there are pictures, it’s no longer possible to dismiss accusations as overheated, harder to tell yourself there must have been more to the story…The widespread outrage we are seeing right now is in reaction to appalling behaviors that are shared daily on social media and the evening news.

Unfortunately, propagandists also understand how visual evidence shapes public opinion. Case in point: Fox News. As the Washington Post reported:

Fox News on Friday removed manipulated images that had appeared on its website as part of the outlet’s coverage of protests over the killing of George Floyd…

The misleading material ran alongside stories about a small expanse of city blocks in Seattle that activists have claimed as the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone. That occupation had until then been peaceful–with people coming and going to hear political speeches and concerts and enjoy free food. Fox’s coverage, however, was designed to give the appearance of armed unrest.

The misleading material spliced a June 10 photograph of an armed man at the Seattle protests with different photographs — one also from June 10, of a sign reading, “You Are Now Entering Free Cap Hill,” and others from images captured May 30 of a shattered storefront and other unrest downtown.

The conservative news site, in coverage that labeled Seattle “CRAZY TOWN” and called the city “helpless,” also displayed an image of a city block set ablaze that was actually taken in St. Paul, Minn.

It wasn’t until the Seattle Times called Fox out for the misleading photographs that Fox removed them and “apologized,” saying “a recent slide show depicting scenes from Seattle mistakenly included a picture from St. Paul, Minnesota. Fox News regrets these errors.”

Sure they do.

Rolling Stone had yet another report of Fox’s “editing.”

A local Fox affiliate ran a story about a family flagging down law enforcement to protect their business from looters, only to have the police come and handcuff them. Fox News removed footage showing police drawing their guns and putting the family in handcuffs, and selectively edited out the police’s mistakes and aggressive tactics.

It isn’t just television. The Internet is awash with deceptive sites; just this week, I read about a site run by a Trump supporter with the URL JoeBiden.info, featuring out-of-context quotes from the former vice president and GIFs of him touching women in ways that would make women uncomfortable.

Now, we face the prospect of even more massive disinformation campaigns via so-called “deepfakes.” As Forbes recently warned, deepfakes are going to create havoc–and we are not prepared.

Last month during ESPN’s hit documentary series The Last Dance, State Farm debuted a TV commercial that has become one of the most widely discussed ads in recent memory. It appeared to show footage from 1998 of an ESPN analyst making shockingly accurate predictions about the year 2020.

As it turned out, the clip was not genuine: it was generated using cutting-edge AI. The commercial surprised, amused and delighted viewers.

What viewers should have felt, though, was deep concern.

Deepfake technology allows anyone with a modicum of skill and a computer to create realistic photos and videos showing people saying and doing things that they didn’t actually say or do. The technology is powered by something called “generative adversarial networks (GANs).”

Several deepfake videos have gone viral recently, giving millions around the world their first taste of this new technology: President Obama using an expletive to describe President Trump, Mark Zuckerberg admitting that Facebook’s true goal is to manipulate and exploit its users, Bill Hader morphing into Al Pacino on a late-night talk show.

The counterfeits are already hard to detect, and the technology continues to improve; meanwhile, its use is growing at a rapid pace.

It does not require much imagination to grasp the harm that could be done if entire populations can be shown fabricated videos that they believe are real. Imagine deepfake footage of a politician engaging in bribery or sexual assault right before an election; or of U.S. soldiers committing atrocities against civilians overseas; or of President Trump declaring the launch of nuclear weapons against North Korea. In a world where even some uncertainty exists as to whether such clips are authentic, the consequences could be catastrophic.

Because of the technology’s widespread accessibility, such footage could be created by anyone: state-sponsored actors, political groups, lone individuals.

The potential for chaos and political mischief boggles the mind. Given the reluctance of platforms like Facebook to alert users to even obvious lies, they’re unlikely to identify deepfakes, even if they develop technology enabling them to do so.

It’s already difficult to counter much of the disinformation disseminated through cyberspace–for one thing, we don’t know who has seen it, so we don’t know where to send corrections.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, what’s a fake picture worth?

 

 

The Kids Are (More Than) All Right

I went to bed Saturday night just after Trump started his rally, and I had considerable trepidation about the headlines that would confront me on Sunday morning. I worried that the people who’d been lining up for the event–and been interviewed incessantly by the media–would be joined by huge numbers of other “fans” of our deeply disturbed President; I worried about violence between protestors and supporters; and most of all, I worried that the event would jump-start  enthusiasm for Trump’s re-election campaign.

Schadenfreude alert! I woke yesterday to headlines characterizing the rally as a dud, and televised photos of a half-full arena.

One of my favorite headlines was from the Guardian: “Trump sows division and promises “greatness” at Tulsa rally flop.” In the same issue, opinion writer Richard Wolffe called the rally a “farce,” and wrote that “It was so toe-curlingly cringeworthy, such a crushing humiliation. There are 80s pop bands who have enjoyed greater comebacks than Donald Trump.”

The New York Times  used less disparaging verbiage, as one might expect, but the report was equally damning.

The rally had been designed to jumpstart the campaign of a would-be demagogue who takes his energy–and cues–from the adulation of crowds. (He seems totally unaware of how unrepresentative those crowds are of the voting public.) The campaign boasted that a million tickets had been spoken for, and it clearly anticipated a huge turnout.

The campaign got pranked–mostly by teenagers who know their way around algorithms and social media. 

Tulsa’s BOK Center holds 19,000;  just under 6,200 actually showed up. Apparently, fans of Korean pop music who use TikTok, along with Instagram and Snapchat users, had participated in a pretty sophisticated effort to order free tickets they had no intention of using.

When I say the effort was sophisticated–these kids didn’t simply order tickets. They were clearly aware of the way political campaigns harvest and use the information disclosed by people reserving tickets or otherwise contacting campaigns (in 2016, the Trump campaign had made savvy use of that information), so most of them created fake accounts and used Google phone numbers–and then deleted them. They also deleted social media posts referring to the plan, to minimize the chances of Trump folks finding out about it.

As a result, Trump’s campaign was caught totally unawares. Workers had to rush to dismantle the outdoor staging erected in anticipation of an overflow crowd.

It wasn’t only the turnout that was embarrassing. Trump delivered his usual, interminable word-salad, but rather than the usual chanting, the crowd seemed…bored. Attendees were caught on camera yawning and checking their phones. And then there was “the sentence”–the shocking admission that pundits predict will anchor hundreds of Biden campaign spots: “When you do more testing to that extent, you are going to find more people, you will find more cases. I said to my people, ‘Slow the testing down, please.’”

Because if you don’t test, Trump can lie with impunity…

Heather Cox Richardson summed it up: 

Far from energizing Trump’s 2020 campaign, the rally made Trump look like a washed-up performer who has lost his audience and become a punchline for the new kids in town. According to White House reporter Andrew Feinberg, a Trump campaign staffer told him that Biden “should have to report our costs to the [Federal Election Commission] as a contribution to his campaign.”

As happy and relieved as I am at what I can only describe as a “best case” outcome, the campaign that truly makes me hopeful is the one waged by the thousands of teenagers who knew their way around technology and social media, and who clearly have their hearts and heads in the right place.

The Times headline was “TikTok Teens and K-Pop Stans Say They Sank Trump Rally.” (Full disclosure: I had no idea what “K-Pop Stans” even were before this.)

“It spread mostly through Alt TikTok — we kept it on the quiet side where people do pranks and a lot of activism,” said the YouTuber Elijah Daniel, 26, who participated in the social media campaign. “K-pop Twitter and Alt TikTok have a good alliance where they spread information amongst each other very quickly. They all know the algorithms and how they can boost videos to get where they want.”

I still don’t know what “Alt-TikTok” is. But what I know or don’t know doesn’t matter–my generation has passed its “sell-by” date. What does matter is the mounting evidence that the students I see in my classes are genuinely representative of a generation that is more inclusive, more humane, and less receptive to authoritarianism than mine.

The kids are all right.