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I Insult, You Insult, We All Insult


My 14-year-old is quick to anger if he thinks I’ve misinterpreted something that took place on the soccer field—especially if he feels I’m criticizing a play he made. “That’s not what happened, stupid. There was a defender right behind me, and another one blocking the near side. My only shot was the far corner, and it was a bad angle. Dummy. Stupid.”

Obviously he was not brought up to say “Yes sir” and No sir.” He was third in a house with four boys, and that’s a lot of brotherly competition, and a lot of colorful language. I’m okay for now with the disrespectful words—it’s his emotions talking, and it’s also part of how we spar. And part of how he expresses his displeasure with me for having the gall to think he might have missed an easy shot.

There’s plenty of time for him (and his brothers) to learn to use respectful, civil language in their interactions with me—and with the world. I try to set an example for them, which includes choosing my own language as carefully as I can, apologizing when I do yell at them (worth apologizing for even if deserved), and admitting when I’ve been rude or insulting to someone else. And I try to teach them that other people’s apparent shortcomings and/or obnoxious behaviors may not be what they seem, that other people have anxieties and insecurities and motives you can’t possibly know about. I’m sure I have said that you can’t really judge another person’s actions until you’ve walked in their shoes.

They may not seem to be listening now, but we always hope that the messages become embedded in the subconscious for future consideration. I know that I discovered as I got older that I was remembering little bits of wisdom I had picked up from my mother and father, and other adults, including schoolteachers and ministers (I used to go to church). I’m fairly certain this is true for most of us.

So here I am in 2016, and I can’t remember a time when I’ve seen and heard so many harsh insults flying around. Civil discourse appears to be at an all-time low.

The reasons for this, presumably, are the uniquely bitter and polarizing election season, and the seemingly never-ending American tragedy of police killing unarmed black men. I also believe there is a backstory in the increasingly partisan, hostile, and truth-twisting media climate spawned by the likes of Fox News, but … I’m not going there today.

Today, I want to talk specifically about Donald Trump, his supporters, and their detractors.

You want to insult Donald Trump? Go for it. He deserves it. He’s practically begging us to do it. Call him a racist, call him a misogynist, call him a bully, call him a liar, call him a loudmouthed dick. He is publicly and proudly all of these things. And he flings insults like nobody else. And he is running for president.

By the way, I am now fully behind Hillary Clinton for president (I wasn’t always). So I have plenty of common ground with my friends and fellow supporters who agree that she is smart, competent, hard-working, and perhaps the best-qualified (in terms of experience) presidential candidate of all time.

Here is where we differ. Many of you, on Facebook and elsewhere, frequently refer to Donald Trump’s supporters with words like stupid, ignorant, backward, racist, misogynist, loutish, redneck, hate-filled, white trash, and so on. You cannot believe any intelligent, educated, respectable person would vote for Trump, and you seem to view those who say they would as inferior human beings.

This is where I get off the bus.

Now, if a Trump enthusiast says something rude to you (in person, on Facebook, wherever), and you’re just responding in kind to someone you take for an idiot, I get it—but you might do well to look up what Mark Twain said about arguing with a fool.

I can’t claim to know much about Trump supporters, but I do know a couple of things. Contrary to what some people would like to think, there are intelligent, educated people out there who identify as Republicans and/or conservatives and say they are voting for Trump. I know a few of them. Typically they hate Hillary Clinton, and they will not be convinced that she isn’t a far worse alternative than Trump. And typically they would have preferred a different Republican nominee, but they’re not going to waste their vote on Gary Johnson when there is a Hillary to be stopped. Besides, once the shouting is over and Trump takes office, who’s to say he can’t be persuaded to pursue an acceptable conservative agenda? It may take a certain amount of rationalization for them to overlook Trump’s more outlandish statements and behaviors, but, well, that’s what people do. At the end of the day, they have a right to their own conclusions.

As for some of Trump’s other supporters—the ones who proudly carried him through the primaries, waving their guns and Confederate flags and “All Lives Matter” posters—I don’t think I know many of them at all. And yes, the items I just mentioned create a broad caricature, but just to be clear, we’re talking about Trump’s far-right base, the voters whose beliefs are considered ugly and primitive by educated Northeast liberals. The beliefs that place them in that lovely little basket marked “Deplorables.”

Not that “deplorable” isn’t a good word for the racial intolerance Trump has nurtured and validated among his supporters. But I think a little perspective is in order; this is not the first time in American history that people who fear they are becoming marginalized and replaced by immigrants who look and speak differently have manifested that fear as hatred and intolerance. This is not something for any of us to be proud of. It is something to overcome—as we have done in the past.

Again, I doubt I know many of the Trump supporters who cheer his bullying and bigotry. And that’s my point. I don’t know their lives and experiences. I don’t know their parents or children or friends or what they were taught in school. I don’t know where they work, or if they are having trouble finding work. I don’t know their motivations and struggles and anxieties and fears. And I don’t know what common ground we share, but I do know that we share a common humanity.

Getting to know people I disagree with on issues almost always changes my perspective on who they are and how they arrived at their beliefs—as I hope it does for them. Without this perspective, I really don’t know who they are. And unless they’re public figures spewing their ignorance and hate at the world, I choose not to insult people I don’t know.

And I would like my children to grow up in a society more civil than the one we have today, though we’d have to reverse the current course pretty soon—like after Donald Trump blows over. Actually, he could be our wake-up call.

Did I just see Michelle Obama and George W. Bush hugging? So maybe there’s hope after all …

Copyright 2016 Stephen Leon 

Time to persuade

If only we had known what would happen in the final two months of the year 2000—and for the eight years thereafter—maybe we could have done something to change it.

And I don’t mean convincing voters in Florida not to vote for Green Party candidate Ralph Nader.

Here in 2016, as the presidential race tightens and polls continue to show that something like a third of all likely voters are considering voting for a third-party candidate in the November election, the noise in the newsrooms and the talk shows and the social media feeds is getting louder and more desperate: “This is no time for a protest vote!” “Don’t be stupid!” “This is your future, selfish Millennials!” “Please don’t bring us ‘The Nader Effect’ all over again!”

Because Nader, so conventional wisdom goes, siphoned off enough votes from Al Gore in Florida to throw the 2000 election to George W. Bush.

And boom! Horrific terrorist attacks. Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Civil liberties under siege. More wealth redistributed upward. And at the end of it all, the Great Recession.

Not the best years of our lives, I’ll agree.

And now we have the specter of possibly electing someone so ill-prepared and, well, batshit crazy that even George W. Bush doesn’t think he’s fit to be president.

But let’s go back for a moment to “The Nader Effect.”

There are two reasons I think we should not fret so much over protest votes, and especially, why we should not stoop to calling voters who opt for third-party candidates “stupid” or “selfish” or “childish.”

The second reason is the most important, in my opinion, but I’ll do Nader/Gore/2000 first.

Reason No. 2 to tone down the outrage over “protest votes” (and to stop referencing the so-called “Nader Effect”):

Blaming Nader and/or his supporters for the 2000 election result is misguided on many levels. For one thing, Gore—who should have won the election with room to spare—ran a campaign as drab as his earth-toned suits, and failed even to carry his home state.  For another thing, third-party candidates are a fact of life in most elections, and their vote support does not transfer automatically to the major-party candidate who seems ideologically closest (e.g., the voter who prefers the Green candidate, given a ballot without his or her first choice on it, shifting to the Democrat—and one study did show that 40 percent of Nader voters in Florida otherwise would have backed Bush). And some voters come to the polls precisely because their candidate inspires them in ways major-party candidates seldom do: by being honest and consistent, by listening and speaking to the concerns of truly ordinary people, and by not being in the grip of large corporate interests (see Nader, Ralph; and Sanders, Bernie).

Finally, Florida was stolen, not lost, and you can’t blame Nader or his voters for that.

It would be easier to make this point if all of the post-election analyses of what we would have learned from a full recount were in agreement, but alas, they are not. As Temple University mathemetics professor John Allen Paulos said at the time—and later regretted, as his words were cited in legal maneuverings that led to the recount being stopped by the U.S. Supreme Court— “The margin of error in this election is far greater than the margin of victory, no matter who wins.” In other words, it was so damn close that slight differences in recount methodology yielded opposite results.

But if you factor in both the voter suppression that occurred before the election and a couple of significant ballot irregularities that could not be included in official recounts—yet obviously cost Gore significant votes on election day—it becomes clearer that Florida election officials did just enough dirty work to throw the election to Bush, who won in the official tally by a mere 537 votes.

In 1999 and 2000, two Florida secretaries of state paid a private firm to come up with a “scrub list” of supposed felons to be removed from the voter rolls. Using extraordinarily lax criteria, the company returned some 57,700 names, which were then distributed to county election boards for removal; the scrub lists, which disproportionately targeted blacks, had numerous errors, and many people did not find out they had been removed from the rolls until they tried to vote on election day. By one estimate, the number of legitimate Gore voters disenfranchised by this maneuver could have been as large as nine times Bush’s margin of victory.

In Palm Beach County, faulty (or should I say, deliberately confusing?) ballot design caused thousands of voters, thinking they were voting for Gore, to vote for conservative third-party candidate Pat Buchanan instead. Elsewhere, “overvotes”—ballots thrown out because voters made more than one mark on them—also cost Gore. If election officials had counted overmarked ballots where the voter’s intent was clear (say, two marks next to one candidate, or a cross-out for one with an emphatic circle around the other), Gore could have picked up 2,182 additional votes to Bush’s 1,309—again, more than Bush’s official margin of victory.

Put all these factors together, and Gore was the clear winner in Florida in 2000, and therefore, the real winner of the presidency. We can’t turn back time, but we can stop blaming Nader, and more important, we can stop blaming his supporters for exercising their democratic right to vote their principles.

Which brings me to my other point …

Reason No. 1 to tone down the outrage over “protest votes”:

I applaud what Bernie Sanders has accomplished this year. He has capped a long and consistently progressive political career with the closest challenge a nonmainstream candidate has made for the Democratic nomination in my lifetime. Call him a socialist, call him a populist, whatever you call him, he has inspired millions of Americans with his no-nonsense prescriptions for a more just and democratic economy. Many of his ardent supporters are young people who see our current political system (and its two major-party standard bearers) as corrupt, but Sanders’ message also has appealed to voters across demographics.

And by effectively running a third-party campaign within the Democratic Party (the only way he could have been as successful as he was), and giving Clinton a scare no one had expected, Sanders showed that a new progressive politics may be within reach, and that voters who expressed their deepest convictions at the polls really did make a difference.

And for voters who feel that they are always being told to shut up and do what the party establishment tells them, voting for Sanders and having it really count toward a movement might have been a liberating experience. We should no more try to take away that kind of experience than tell voters whom they must vote for under any circumstances.

Every individual owns his or her own vote, and is free to cast it as they choose. That is democracy, pure and simple.

Of course candidates and pundits (and Facebook friends) will try to sway the holdouts. Convincing arguments are always welcome. Whatever reservations you have about Clinton, there are real and scary differences between her and Donald Trump. And when all is said and done, most Sanders supporters will vote for Clinton, not Jill Stein or Gary Johnson.

And one of the best arguments for Democrats is, of course, that Clinton can finally create a liberal Supreme Court, where many decisions are made that really do affect our lives. For example, Black Lives Matter supporters should be aware—I’m sure that many are—that Supreme Court decisions dating back to the seventies are what allow police to defend unjustified killings with the flimsiest of excuses that they feared for their lives.

But convincing voters to help Hillary win and keep Donald Trump out of the White House should be done with persuasive arguments, not insults.

In a Sept. 22 New York Times op-ed, addressing mainly black Millennials not comfortable with voting for either Clinton or Trump, Charles M. Blow wrote, “Protest voting or not voting at all isn’t principled. It’s dumb, childish, and self-immolating. I know you’re young, but grow up!”

I respectfully disagree. Such insults are akin to telling people they are too stupid to make their own choices in the voting booth. Forget what you really think, and listen to the establishment.

On Election Day, people should feel free to express their convictions with the one ballot they own. You don’t have to shame them for it. There is still time to earn it.

Copyright 2016 Stephen Leon


Speaking of Deplorables


The Hillary Clinton campaign, newly concerned about Donald Trump’s rebound in the polls, is trying once again to reach out to Millennials and others who were energized by Bernie Sanders, but who now say they won’t vote or else will vote for the Green or the Libertarian candidate.

A majority of voters who supported Sanders likely will vote for Clinton because they see her as a better choice than Trump.

But as for the holdouts—the ones who don’t like and/or trust Hillary and never will—good luck.

I spoke with one of those this morning about the election—my 20-year-old son. (He is either a Millennial or a member of “Generation Z,” depending on whose definition you use.)

He said he is not voting because, without Sanders in the race, there is no point. He admitted to not knowing much about Jill Stein (Green) or Gary Johnson (Libertarian), but said a vote for either of them would be pointless because they have no chance.

There are good reasons for progressives to support Clinton over Trump, among them her relative positions on energy and the environment, immigration, choice, etc., and the fact that she is likely to nominate more liberal judges to the Supreme Court. Also, since her Bernie scare, she has adopted variations of his stances on things like subsidizing college tuition and increasing the minimum wage.

Of course, people are free to choose whether to believe the narrative (written largely by the right) about Hillary embodying the shameless greed and dishonesty associated with out-of-control power, but if you look more closely at her record, you might just find that she is not quite the devil—just a politician, pragmatic and opportunistic to a fault, and of course, not always right.

That won’t sway my son, who has no use for the way families like the Clintons and Bushes amass political and personal fortunes as they consolidate their power.

I asked him what Hillary could do to earn his vote, and he said nothing, really, unless she could go back to age 20 and start over.

I, for one, would like to see Hillary do something she has not done—take a page from the Bernie Sanders/Elizabeth Warren playbook and speak out loudly and clearly against the excesses of Wall Street and the banking industry, and offer specific reforms to curtail their most damaging, usurious and predatory practices.

The financial industry will not regulate itself; banks will do whatever they can get away with to make their profits. And their offenses are many. But I would focus specifically on bank practices that target society’s most vulnerable—people who are struggling economically, and also both young and elderly people who may not understand what banks are doing to lock them in a cycle of debt. Payday loans, un-asked-for lines of credit, interest rates jacked up after one or two late payments, and the reordering of trasnsactions to maximize overdraft fees, are just a few examples of how banks rip us off, especially the poorest among us.

Bernie Sanders’ youthful supporters lived through the Great Recession and know that the financial industry was largely to blame. And many of them still feel vulnerable.

Oh, and there is a word for financially penalizing people who can least afford it: immoral.

Hillary, can you say that? You’ll get my vote.

Maybe you’ll even get the vote of my son. Or a few others like him.

Copyright 2016 Stephen Leon

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What’s so hard to understand about freedom of expression?

At first I thought the Colin Kaepernick controversy was the overcovered story of the week; the man refused to stand for the national anthem, which is his right. Get over it already, and let’s get on to the real news.

Then, of course, the story became the story.

And the reason I now think this is a significant historical moment is that is shows that national discourse on racial issues has progressed somewhat. Kaepernick’s ongoing act of dissent has not been slammed with a one-sided barrage of condemnation from the media and the NFL powers that be, as it likely would have been 25 or 35 years ago.

We are nowhere near “postracial.” But volume of voices on social media defending Kaepernick and, more important, exposing the “plantation mentality” of his detractors, has been heartening.

What still gets me is that some percentage of Americans still seem to view free speech not as an inalienable right but as an abstract concept that some of us–especially those who dare express challenging opinions–aren’t really supposed to use.

And their statements defy common sense. What does it matter how much money Kaepernick makes? How does that diminish his right to dissent? And why are people who exercise their free-speech rights told they should go live in Russia? The twisted logic of that sentiment is mind-blowing.

I am reminded of an argument that took place at a flag-burning many years ago between a youthful left-wing dissident and an older, conservative veteran. The young man stated he was exercising his constitutional right to free expression.

“Rights?” the veteran countered. “We fought for your rights. You haven’t got any rights.”

In hindsight, I accept that the older gentleman was angry and was expressing his own opinion (at the time, I snickered at the remark’s comical stupidity). Still, in his own awkward way, he was saying exactly what some people still say today when someone like Kaepernick dares challenge the nation to have a conversation about its shortcomings.

Copyright 2016 by Stephen Leon

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