Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Flag burning, free speech and thanking veterans

When I was in high school, I participated in competitive speech. I favored extemporaneous speaking and oratories more than debating. The closest I ever got to debate was student congress where we would write and present bills, debate them and put them to a vote that was binding to no one and meant absolutely nothing in the grand scheme of things.

I sat in on a meeting for the debate competition once. The topic to be debated was flag burning. I was not aware, prior to the meeting, that we would be required to come up with arguments for both sides of the issue. Naive patriot and budding narcissist that I was, I could not bring myself to argue for both sides of an issue that I personally felt very strongly about. I decided that debate wasn’t for me and I would stick to categories that I was more comfortable with.

As I’ve matured and gained experience, I’ve learned to be more open-minded and listen to the ideas and opinions of others with varied backgrounds and ways of thinking; as a result, my views on numerous topics have evolved—and will most likely continue to do so.

From time-to-time the topic of flag burning comes up in the media. Conversations among friends and co-workers on the subject have migrated from the water cooler or break room the next day to various social media platforms in near real-time. The hashtag helps people to both keep their shared opinions on-topic and participate in what’s “trending.”

It’s fascinating to see the differing opinions as I scroll through news feeds. Calls for criminal consequences and loss of citizenship for flag-burners gets a lot of play—free speech and Supreme Court precedent be damned, apparently. Another thing that I find interesting are the inferences that are made by the act. A protestor may burn the flag to protest any number of perceived injustices ostensibly committed by the government. Said protestor may very well preface their act with a clear statement articulating precisely what they are protesting. Regardless of the reasoning shared by the protestor, they’re purpose for the protest is overshadowed by the act itself. Once that ensign is set on fire, most people don’t see someone protesting an injustice. They just see someone who “hates America.”

Flag burning is a feckless way to bring attention to any cause. Nobody cares about what one might be protesting—even if it’s a completely legitimate complaint that effects everyone equally—if one chooses to focus their act of protest on a revered symbol. The “desecration” of the emblem will be the headline, not the injustice that inspired it. And the people who set flame to fabric get labeled “commie rat jerks” and/or are accused of symbolically spitting on “our heroes.” i.e. military veterans.

One statement in particular that stood out to me read, “Burning the American Flag is a hate crime against veterans.”

As a veteran myself—as well as a member of an ethnic minority—I found this statement to be somewhat hyperbolic. When I think of a “hate crime,” my thoughts turn to acts of violence committed directly against members of minority groups motivated solely by the fact that the victims are members of minority groups.

I don’t know if flag burning can be considered an act of violence toward any person or group—ethnic, religious, civic or political. An act of protest? Obviously. An act of defiance? Sure. An act specifically intended to offend others? Maybe, but protesting, being defiant or even offensive aren’t hate crimes. Regardless of the motivation behind it, flag burning is not a criminal act. Laws have been passed to criminalize flag-burning and those same laws have been struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional as per The First Amendment—thus invalid and unenforceable.

When I served in the United States Navy, I took an oath to protect and defend the U.S. Constitution which means that my job was to protect the constitutional rights of my fellow citizens including their right to express themselves however they want.

If a U.S. citizen chooses to express themselves by burning a tangible symbol—be it a flag, relic or icon—they are exercising a right that I helped to protect. I may not agree with their sentiments, politics or even the way they choose to express themselves, but I also can’t square taking offense for something I swore to defend, to say nothing of trying to take away someone’s constitutional rights through criminalization of a symbolic act of self-expression.

Frankly, if there’s anything that I find offensive as a veteran, it’s the apathy of people who refuse to exercise their rights at all. To speak, to vote, to participate in social discourse.

It seems to me that since 9/11, it’s become in vogue—upon learning of someone’s status as a veteran—to say, “Thank you for your service.” I personally don’t care to be verbally thanked for my service. I volunteered and did my job but I don’t put on any airs about my time in the military. I wasn’t very good at keeping up with all the required decorum and was a “model” sailor only in the sense that a model is a cheap imitation of an original. When the opportunity to reenlist presented itself, I thought it best not to.

Photo credit: TheodoreWLee
via / CC BY-NC-ND
If Americans want to thank veterans for their service, they shouldn’t just say it. They should show it. They should do something, like exercising the rights all veterans served to protect, and not try to take those same rights away from others over a difference of opinion. If Americans want to sincerely honor veterans, they should support legislation that actively helps veterans in need of housing, healthcare and employment. Among the adult homeless population, 11% are veterans. Americans who want to truly thank their veterans should vote into office public servants that understand that when active military service ends, veterans still need and deserve the support of their country and its citizens.

Vocally thanking a veteran for their service means nothing if all one does afterward is take offense at flag-burning and then vote into office politicians who are just as vocal in their outrage over symbolic acts as they are their moral support of veterans while surreptitiously backing legislation to dismantle programs that exist specifically to help those same veterans.

(revised February 25, 2017)

Sunday, May 29, 2016

On fear and critical thinking

I shared the following meme on the Puente’s Perspective Facebook page.

It got a couple of “Likes” and a single comment that appeared to be an attempt at a rebuttal:
“Evidently you aren't a veteran. Here's just ONE example…”
The comment included a link to what appeared to be a “BREAKING” news report.

In response, I would first like to point out to the commenter that I am, in fact, a veteran and—as long as we’re making clarifications—let’s take a look at this “BREAKING” story a little more closely.

That all-caps lead in the headline just begs to be clicked. It’s an excellent example of “Click Bait.”
So is this. (It’s just a story about her show being canceled
but you’d think that she had died considering the way it’s worded)
If the commenter’s link were to take its readers to an actual legitimate news source, I might be inclined to take it more seriously. However, the website that hosts this particular “report” is called “The Truth About Guns.” In my experience, any publication or program that purports to be a source of credible information and feels they need to drive that point home by including the word “truth” in their name is usually suspect.*

The headline goes on to summarize the story thusly:
“VA Tries to Confiscate Disabled Vet’s Guns, Stopped by Citizens and Sheriff Standing Guard.”
The first half of the headline is a clear attempt to anger conservative, pro-gun readers by appealing to their fears that the government will try to take away their guns—to say nothing of the general disdain conservatives have for government agencies in general.

The fear and anger evoked by the first half of the headline is tempered by the second; a patriotic assurance that the VA was “stopped” because “Citizens” and a sheriff stood guard to protect the veteran and his Second Amendment rights.

Since I received the link in a comment on my Facebook page, I felt a certain obligation to hear out the opinion shared by the commenter. So I read the article in an attempt to get the “whole story.”

The report did link to a number of sources (half of which resided at the same website) but I couldn’t help but notice a disparity between the headline and the story itself.

While the headline read that the “VA [tried] to Confiscate [a] Disabled Vet’s Guns…” the article itself refers to “the VA forcibly confiscating the firearms of a disabled veteran” as a “nightmare scenario” that “almost happened.” (emphasis added) I guess this is what one would call “click-bait and switch.” Come to think of it, most click-bait is like that.

The writer goes on to say, “…the VA was stopped in its tracks by a grassroots group of local residents. And the sheriff. And some politicians. All of whom stood on the man’s front yard to prevent the confiscation.” (sic) His choice to go with full stops instead of comma’s caused me to imagine the words being spoken by William Shatner.

This description conjures up the image of a VA bureaucrat trying to get to the veteran and his guns only to be thwarted by patriots guarding his front door. The bureaucrat, unable to complete their assignment then limps back to their office in the dark dank corridors of the nefarious Veterans Administration (wherever that is).

An uncredited and un-captioned photograph at the top of the page shows a number of people gathered in front of a house, some holding a banner (facing away from the camera). One can only assume that this was taken at the location of the events being reported but without a description to identify the people standing outside it or any representative(s) from the VA, one really can’t be sure.

The next part of the report quotes an Associated Press article (conveniently including a broken hyperlink) which describes the residents’ presence at the house of Navy Veteran John Arnold in a very different tone:

“A group of residents in northern Idaho lined up outside a U.S. Navy veteran’s house on Thursday to protest claims that federal officials are planning on confiscating the man’s weapons.” (emphasis added)

So, this whole thing was a protest? The headline suggested that these people were guarding the house. The AP article makes it clear that they were just protesting and states that “…Bonner County Sheriff Daryl Wheeler… promised to stand guard against any federal attempts to remove Arnold’s guns…”

The Sheriff didn’t even say that he was standing guard, only that he promised to do so. But weren’t those jack-booted VA thugs already there ready to stomp on the Second Amendment? The “Truth About Guns” headline said that they were “Stopped by Citizens and [the] Sheriff Standing Guard.”

No, actually. There were, in fact, ZERO representatives from the VA on Arnold's property (or anywhere near it). According to a local news report, a representative from Bonner County Veteran Services did make an appearance to specifically state that “the VA inspector would not be coming to Arnold's house that day.” So, no actual attempt to confiscate anyone’s guns was made. Which is to say that NOTHING was actually “stopped.”

The AP article, which I was able to find elsewhere, bears a much more accurate title to describe what really happened: “Gun-confiscation fears lead to protest in northern Idaho.” It goes on to state:
“Veteran Affairs spokesman Bret Bowers confirmed a letter had been sent to Arnold from the VA's benefits office in Salt Lake City… Bowers added that the agency doesn't have the authority to confiscate weapons. 
“'We don't send officers to confiscate weapons. We are about providing health care to veterans,’ he said.” (emphasis added)
I would like to have seen the letter Arnold received from the VA to confirm that it did, in fact, say what he claims it said but, as far as I can tell, he hasn't released it to the public. I did an internet search to try and find similar letters from the VA and the results were interesting. It would seem that Arnold received a VA form letter informing him about a decision made by the VA regarding his mental capacity (the letter would also include instructions on how to appeal said decision). As reported by the AP:
“Currently, the Veterans Affairs Department can bar veterans from purchasing guns if they are declared incompetent…‘This does happen sometimes, where the VA sends out a letter,’ said Bryan Hult, veteran services officer for Bonner County. ‘Especially if a veteran has dementia ... and a fiduciary has to be appointed to manage finances like a pension and income. You wouldn't want that person to be in possession of a gun.’”
Stories about “Obama” or “The Government” trying to confiscate guns have been floating around for years, mostly in e-mail in-boxes and conservative blogs. Not so much from credible news sources because it’s generally understood by professional journalists that “news” is about things that have actually happened and can be verified by multiple sources. Speculation about things that might happen, “almost happened” or may have happened according to second-hand sources or a single source with no additional witnesses to the supposed event are not, technically speaking, news.

Everyone is free to speculate about whatever they want and post those speculations to their blogs, social media accounts or e-mail lists but to couch that speculation in terms—even typical journalistic formatting—that make it appear to be a report of actual events is unethical and irresponsible.

It’s unfortunate that in my lifetime, I have witnessed the general public’s capacity to exercise critical thinking diminish significantly over the years. As public investment in education has withered, the ability of citizens to discern fact from fiction has also eroded.

The proliferation of websites that look like legitimate news sources but publish invented stories with an eye toward spreading fear, hoaxes and general misinformation is bad enough (these sites cover their asses by stating that they exist to entertain through satire and parody, but these disclaimers usually reside on difficult to find “About” pages). What's even scarier are the number of online newsletters and biased bloggers who call themselves “citizen journalists” who do little more than parrot party lines and “report” (editorialize) the news by trying to divine some imagined hidden agenda supposedly written between the lines in actual news articles. The only reason the frauds who produce this pseudo-journalistic rubbish are so popular is that so many people out there simply don’t know how to think critically, to question the veracity of anything that’s presented to them as “The Truth,” the people who present it or the special interests they represent.

*The official newspaper of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was called “Pravda” (literally, “Truth” in Russian). Even Soviet citizens knew to take its headlines with a grain of salt. I’m sure at its hight, Pravda was as “Fair & Balanced™” as Fox News and would never cop to tilting their journalism in favor of any particular agenda or, heaven forbid, misleading their audience.

Here are some additional—and credible—sources on the topic of Veterans and gun rights.