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A Pause for Plurality
One can imagine our nation’s founders enshrining such a landmark doctrine in the Constitution and wondering what quandaries future generations would have.
But perhaps the most divisive of all passages was regarding free speech and our ability to indulge in controversial opinions. The standard by what we consider controversial has changed and encompassed women’s suffrage, racial integration, abortion and the merits of faith itself. But regardless of the issue, our national consciousness must return to the premise that this country was founded on the principle of differing opinions.
History is littered with examples of governments that have stifled the voice of their people. Likewise, it is also replete with instances of revolutions that have taken place to restore that right. Yet we live in peculiar times when our cultural standard of unacceptable speech and our legal definition is at odds. The United States Supreme Court has had their say in Matal v. Tam. The opinion for the majority by Justice Alito stated:
“[The idea that the government may restrict] speech expressing ideas that offend … strikes at the heart of the First Amendment. Speech that demeans on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, disability, or any other similar ground is hateful; but the proudest boast of our free speech jurisprudence is that we protect the freedom to express “the thought that we hate.”
Just like that, if one has the right to speak about what they loathe, another has the right to protest it. That is the scene that played out in Charlottesville, Virginia and will surely play out in Florida in the days to come. Blaming the current administration for the emboldened actions of white nationalists will be debated regardless. But the questions still remains, how far does the pluralism in our country actually go?
In the days that followed the Virginia rally, countless gatherings across the nation echoed the antithesis of white nationalists. The motto that hate is not free speech was prêt-à-porter. Even more to the point, the call to detain those spewing horrendous diatribes about minorities and Jews grew louder. Yet federal authorities refused to intervene unless there was physical violence or harm to any party. Sadly, we must be weary where we draw the line.
There is no doubt that words can compel people to action, sometimes even the criminal variety. But the slippery slope on which we stands forces us to determine which type of hate speech is more pervasive than others. Jailing those who simply wave a confederate flag, or worse still, a Nazi banner, means we imprison them for their thoughts. We have the capacity to do that and rightfully so–insofar as those sentiments clearly state they want to do someone mortal harm or otherwise. These are necessary cases where free speech comes with consequences.
But as the Supreme Court has already said, hate speech is still free speech.
One thing that often goes unrecognized is that all free speech has a price. Those who voice their opinions on controversial topics must expect a certain backlash. The bigger the stage, the bigger the backlash. In that regard, the Free Speech Amendment does not protect us. Whether we are blue collar workers, white collar employees, scholars or government officials, we all can have an opinion. That is far from saying we all need to have the same one.
The world we live in sees this play out in court rooms, public squares and now even football fields and sports arenas. As a sports fan, I simply want to see a game and not delve into the finer points of civil rights, but my annoyance is a small price to pay for a society that values everyone’s point of view.
As a publisher and human being, the Nazi banner represents the worst in humankind and always will. That joins slavery as one of the biggest blights in the history of the world. Those who still espouse such beliefs lack a fundamental compassion that makes us human. Seeing footage of protesters proudly heralding a symbol that was used to spur nations to murder and blind nationalism is appalling and disturbing. As much as I hate it, I still have to respect another person’s right to love it…until it comes to tangible harm.
Pluralism is not easy and demands our better angels to live within its boundaries. The alternative is truly something to pity.
The Perils of Indignation
If there’s been a collective lesson the country has learned since the days of Charlottesville, it’s that the scars of our past are still healing–perhaps even that they never started healing in the first place.
Just the symbols of white nationalism are still so visceral, it sparked violence that made the national zeitgeist really question how faithful we really are to those “American” ideals of pluralism and inclusions. To put it bluntly, it scared us into wondering if we were as noble as we assumed.
Yet in the wake of President Trump’s initial half-hearted rebuke of the alt-right and the subsequent hard-line public statement, our indignation at other symbols of intolerance took over. No nation’s history is innocent. Look deep enough and prominence of any sort is often at the expense of those bit players not found in history books. Yet in commemorating the “heroes” of those bygone eras we don’t solely honor the people, but the ripple affects those trials precipitated.
Personally, learning about the Civil War and military history has been a passion for me for decades. That being said, calling slavery an abomination doesn’t go far enough. It is inhuman and those who participated in it, including our founding fathers, will always have a blight on their legacy.
But indignation can only take us so far. There is no lack of societal ills and they all deserve the outcry of an informed and educated electorate. Recently, San Antonio’s local Civil War monument in Travis Park was the target of such protest. It joined the number of other confederate monuments cross the country facing removal or all-out vandalism.
It seemed ironic that amid protests for equality and compassion, there was little mention that Travis Park was notorious for being a spot where the local homeless population would sleep. The public called for a heightened social conscience rooted in fairness, but no one pointed out those at the bottom of society continually face being ignored by the public at large. I venture to say it would shock a great many people who participated in the rally to remove the Confederate monument that some of those “vagrants” in the park are veterans dealing with drug or alcohol dependency as a result of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) from their service to the nation.
Yet there was no gathering there to call for for more federal funding to Veteran’s Affairs (VA) programs that are still on the budgetary chopping block. Where was that indignation? If we as a nation subscribe to the idea that we pull ourselves up with hard work and an opportunity, then we also must address the the hindrances to those opportunities.
For instance, maintaining a stable home address is vital to doing even the most basic things in society. With Section 8 housing stipends vanishing, the loss of that temporary assistance that often leads to gainful employment banishes many to life on the street. Yet I’ve never been invited to a rally for funding mixed use housing, much less one attended by hundreds of enthusiastic proponents.
In an ideal world, those society choose to venerate are without controversy. But as we’ve seen, we live far from an ideal world. Our fate is to live in the gray areas where our history is both glorious and regrettable simultaneously. Removing statues that exemplify the worst in ourselves may be closure for some, but simultaneously erasing from where we came to others.
Even if removing Union and Confederate statutes across the nation took place, that still does nothing to address the pervasive causes of inequality and malice our society. No monument ever dedicated had more influence as individuals who worked for a better future. If indignation be the spark to action, then let that action lead to lasting compassion and a legacy of progress.
Statues may topple and the winds of history may change course, but we mustn’t fall to to the perils of shortsighted indignation in the face of a world that needs our undivided attention.
The beauty of…beauty
“Study nature, love nature, stays close to nature. It will never fail you,” says Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Yet he overlooked perhaps the saddest paradox of all–that we can fail it. In the latest move by the Trump administration, the Executive Order signed by the President calls for the review of designated federal monuments under the Bush, Clinton and Obama administrations.
In a decision slated as efforts to return power to states, President Trump has been on his heels after harsh criticism concerning his performance of his first 100 days in office. That has led to a bevy of legislative rollouts to stifle a growing number of pundits who point to little in the way of success by the White House.
What is afoot here is far more dubious. It threatens the very identity of what makes the United States the bastion of beauty from sea to shining sea. It opens the door to placing a “For Sale” sign on all federal land. During the days of the New Deal, the Public Works Administration under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt set out to protect the soul of this nation via its unique natural spaces. In so doing, he created a number of jobs in the dark days of the Great Depression.
Aside from that, he underscored the obligation for Presidents to never forget that conservation is a gift to generations yet to come. As someone who grew up enjoying both state and national parks, it is a singular experience that rejuvenates and inspires. For as social as humanity is, there is nothing as human as allowing the contemplative inner dialogue to be heard.
Our national parks are more than day hikes and photo opts. They represent billions in revenue from visitors and stand as testament to the grandeur of the United States for tourists from across the world. They are where numerous cultures and languages converge. During a four-week sojourn that took me across the western United States, I visited over twelve national parks and seven state parks. Staying in a hotel only one night that entire trip, I grew accustomed to setting up and breaking camp. I experienced negative winter temperatures and triple-digit heat in the heart of the desert. All the while, my connection with the peaks of Colorado to the sulfur springs of Wyoming to even the grueling descent to the base of the Gran Canyon grew.
It was nothing short of sublime.
Yet all that is tenuously holding on to a slim hope that the voice of advocates from either political persuasion reaches an influential ear. Also standing in the way of potentially harmful development of protected land is the 1906 Antiquities Act. Either Congress or the President can protect federal lands by designating them as a national monument. While Congress has occasionally revoked that status for existing monuments, no President ever has. On this, the founding fathers are clear. No President can undo an act of Congress without its approval.
Sadly, Trump is targeting all or part of monuments that make up 100,000 acres or more which were created by Presidential proclamation since 1996.
Ultimately, this is about legacy and what we choose to value as a nation. What we can surmise is that those who simply see immediate economic benefits determine opportunity growth. But generations will judge this as an affront to the fundamental belief that wide-open spaces of pristine beauty are as American as the concrete jungles of any major city.
In short, with a stroke of pen, we have endangered the opportunity study, love and stay close to nature. And it is us who have failed it.
A long, strange trip
As the Presidential political season prepares to wind down and the fight over the validity of voting results barely brews, it seems the country is still deeply divided.
No. It’s not between two candidates that offer stark and distinctive visions of America, but the ideology the governs their rise and sustained supports from all segments of the population. In covering the campaign for the White House for the past year, I like many other news outlets strive to keep it simple. Let the candidates speak, or misspeak, for themselves.
Yet something odd happened as the the country saw a once-hallowed democratic process devolve into a fist fight of accusations and insults. It revealed the nature of the country when it comes to politics and how heavily we invest in it. No one can doubt that implications of legislation or a left or right leaning Supreme Court can be far-reaching. But courting the electorate has become a referendum on a person’s sense of decency in a way not seen in any previous race for President.
On both the Democratic and Republican side, the accusatory and judgemental question of “how could you vote for that person?” has been said many times by now. Often, the person asking not only passes judgment on the other’s politics, but their moral compass as well–perhaps even their intelligence. But we have a number of factors to blame for this.
The constant stream of Wikileaks e-mails, the releasing of damning videos and audio of the candidates and social media have made us all primed for something more akin to an argument on the playground in middle school than a meticulously planned public relations offensive. When all the votes have been counted and all the voter fraud lawsuits settled, we will all have but one question to ask ourselves if we truly are as introspective with our lives as we are with our vote: how did we allow this to happen?
The truth is that it’s been a long time coming. Years of candidates turned career politicians has bred a level of apathy so astounding that anyone with any semblance of honesty was going to get attention. Recall the campaign by Bernie Sanders during the primary season. Not only did it energize the left because it offered a viable option to Hillary Clinton, but it was from a man that seemingly let common sense and blunt truth be his guide. On the right was a man that set fire to any false decorum by overly-polished Republican suitors.
If we as a nation have done anything right in this presidential election, it has been the outright rejection of the shiny and varnished surface of sycophants seeking the spotlight.
But that comes at a price. By emboldening the cause of the plain-spoken man of the people, we ask for the common response in every instance. The problem is the heavily nuanced world of international politics and domestic wheeling and dealing in Congress quickly squeezes out Mr. Smith once he’s in Washington D.C. Now as the final days of the Presidential race are here, we are left wondering what will become of the country in the post-Obama years.
That vision varies a great deal depending who you ask, but while originally we strove to listen to the better angels of our character to decide a new Commander-in-Chief, we allowed fear to rule our allegiance.
If such a momentous decision as the leader the free world comes down to one who will cause less international chaos or destruction of the American way of life, we are truly too far gone.
I recall the writer and historian Shelby Foote when he said the greatest talent we ever had in this country was the ability to compromise. It was that compromise that led us out of political gridlock in the past and it will continue to play an integral role in the future. Yet the entrenched positions taken by supporters on the left and right have only begotten rancor that has boiled over into violence at political rallies. A healthy and energized electorate is vital in free society. “Pundits” calling for the end of the world should Hillary Clinton win is proof enough that there is a surprisingly thin line between fervor and lunacy when it comes to ideology.
Before we prepare for the end times when either of these candidates are sworn in, just remember that this circus will start over four short years from now. And we will be left with the memory of our doggedness in the 2016 Presidential election.
Idols and icons
Now that a sufficient amount of time has passed to absorb the retirement of Tim Duncan, the real post-NBA tour across the city can begin.
It started with the press conference by his former head coach (still odd to say) Gregg Popovich in which he not only welled up at times, but even sported a Tim Duncan t-shirt. And that led to July 21 officially being sanctioned “Tim Duncan Day” by the city of San Antonio. I’m sure in the weeks and months to come, there will be proclamations and streets that will bear his name.
It appears the fanfare he so often ignored during his playing days will find him after all. But this is about more than just basketball. It is testament to how San Antonio not only cheers its heroes in sports, but adopts them as de facto family outside of it. Simply recall David Robinson’s departure from the Spurs and that is all you need to know with how dearly we hold them. Robinson still has a relationship with the organization and even attends most, if not all, of the games at the AT&T Center.
There is a reason why local sports legends tend to stay in the Alamo City after their playing days are over. While waxing poetic about that quintessential Texas gratitude has gotten old, there is something to it. Life after a playing a sport that is so heavily marketed does not leave much room for a quiet life afterwards, but who would be surprised if 21 lives simply with his kids and tinkers with cars most of his time only to make the occasional public appearance?
If tomorrow Duncan woke up and wanted to be Mayor of this great city, he would get most of the votes I imagine with little more than showing up to a rally wearing one of his five championship rings. Of course, no one is saying he has political aspirations, but the fact he can embark on something like that speaks volumes. To this day, his mentor and other Spurs legend in Robinson could probably do the same. In many ways, San Antonio is a large city with many small town tendencies. Their careers unfolded before our eyes and some of our best memories may have been while watching one of their games with friends and family. Dare we say that a little piece of them belongs to us.
Perhaps that is an argument you can make about only the greatest athletes of our generation. The air is indeed rare up there and included names like Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles, Michael Jordan in Chicago, Karl Malone in Salt Lake City and even Lebron James in Cleveland. So feel free to add Tim Duncan in San Antonio because, for decades to come, there will be countless discussions about his greatness and his charity. It seems more like one would speak about a saint than a basketball player.
I suppose that must be the trajectory though. Start as a promising rookie, become a sports idol for a generation and, when it is time call it career, be seen as an icon. It is not bad work if you can get it. All we wait for now is statue of Robinson with his arm draped around a maturing Duncan as they raise both the Larry O’Brian Trophy and the NBA Finals MVP trophy on either side.
The Spurs will go on and other players will wear the silver and black. The AT&T Center will, once again, be packed with expectant fans looking to a title run. But whatever the future holds for Duncan and this family, he will always belong to a city that adopted a shy, hyper-focused kid out of Wake Forest that listened more than he spoke, practiced more than he bragged and subsequently won way more than he lost.
A city on the rise
Eight years ago, March Magazine started with a simple idea. It was that journalism could tell a story not beholden to any Machiavellian standards of coverage.
Now as San Antonio develops its own international character, I’m compelled to ask what that character actually is. I’ve been fortunate to be in the news media for 18 years and, in that time, I have covered numerous locales. Each had their identity complete with highs and lows and goals and failures.
When I first arrived in the Alamo City, one of my first assignments was covering one of the annual galas downtown honoring community leaders for their efforts to raise local graduation rates in both high schools and universities. Amid all the glad-handing, my hopes for hearing an honest take on why so many students fall though the cracks was waning.
That was until I heard the master of ceremonies say that “San Antonio has a choice to make in the very near future. We can become a great city or simply be a place always on the cusp.” All these years and countless assignments later, I started hearing a new term that was as exciting as it was ambiguous. A “city on the rise” has become part of the municipal and business vernacular and most people’s assumptions of its definition tie it to a financial windfall or overarching city vision.
I have more than assimilated to the San Antonio culture and have come to expect great things from proactive leadership like our former Mayor and current Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Julian Castro. I believe that same intrepid, but tempered, spirit can be found in our current Mayor Ivy Taylor. What I question is who really is reaping the benefits of us becoming a jewel in South Texas.
Much of the attention for emerging industries go to likes of Techbloc, Geekdom and other start-ups that had Silicon Hills touting our city and Austin as the new “Silicon Valley.” Even The Atlantic has begged the question if San Antonio even has a ceiling for its potential. San Antonio added to its reputation in biomedical advancement with the Southwest Research Institute and grants from the National Institute of Health (NIH) into breakthroughs in diabetes and cancer.
For as many feathers in the city’s cap, there is still a shockingly low number of actual San Antonians taking part. Many of the people behind these booming industries are recent transplants educated from some of the finest institutions from across the country. While these emerging business leaders are always welcome, South Texas also produces its share of qualified graduates with equally impressive vision.
Job creation and actually being able to find qualified candidates are two very different things. Ideally, incoming companies and lucrative employers, drawn in by the city’s culture and incentives, would look to UTSA, Incarnate Word, Trinity University, and the Alamo Community Colleges for a crop of employees. It is said that a rising tide lifts all boats. If that is true, then who better to fill the jobs of tomorrow than native sons and daughters of San Antonio?
Clearly it is easier said than done. Providing curricula commensurate to jobs in economically viable industries demands partnerships. Schools, employers and students all must be part of the same tide that raises the profile of the city. While some companies have made the effort to hire local talent, thus fostering a legacy of prosperity, many more can join in.
San Antonio’s recent highlighting of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) classes is a step in the right and much-needed direction. For minority students, STEM careers are not a typical first choice. Statistics bear our how underrepresented they are with little change in the industry profile from 14 years ago. Now as I reflect on the topic of the gala all those years ago, I’m hopeful in saying that the challenge is not just about reaching graduation, but doing so with many job prospects from which to choose.
Then and only then will be a great city not on the rise, but as a beacon.