Democracy comes to life, in the form of an Internet live stream

In the early days of America, the White House was meant to be a place of accessibility. Fresh off British rule, our founding fathers wanted the people of our nation to be involved in government to the highest degree – a right they were not afforded under the reign of a monarch.

Indeed, during the days of Washington, Adams and Jefferson, people were literally allowed to stroll up to the White House and walk in. The president would even come and greet them.

What greater way is to participate in government than that?

After all, the entire premise of a republic relies on the participation of its electorate. We are expected to vote, to be vocal, and to immerse ourselves in the democratic process as much as possible. Our government, remember, is “of the people, by the people, for the people,” and our elected leaders are supposed to answer to us and nobody else.

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Flash forward 200 years later. Nobody cares about government. No one writes to their congressional representatives. More than half of the country doesn’t vote. And because of it, our representatives don’t give a shit what we have to say.

Essentially, our own inertia weakens our influence.

Years of relative peace and the ubiquity of the Internet has resulted in a greater disengagement than ever in this country between the government and its people.

The mere idea of sitting down and penning a note for your U.S. Senator is archaic.

Attending a Town Hall meeting to discuss important issues? Lol-worthy.

Turning on CSPAN to watch a Senate hearing? Ludicrous.

Until now.

If there is one unquestionable truth we can all agree on with the Trump administration, it’s that this contemporary conventional wisdom of government participation has been turned on its head.

People are absolutely flooding their congressional representatives with calls, letters and emails. People are donating to charitable causes that will fight on their behalf. People are taking to the streets to protest actions and policies they believe to be antithetical to American values.

Still not convinced?

The audio for Tuesday’s federal appeals court hearing for Trump’s proposed travel ban was streamed on the Internet, and more than 136,000 people tuned in. Tens of thousands more listened on TV.

That’s astounding.

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Sure, 135,000 is a drop in the bucket compared to the 324 million people living in this country, but, it’s still an interest level in government that would have been unheard of even a year ago.

And that is a very good thing. It’s sad that it took an event of this magnitude to get us there, but, the fact that people are vigilant and paying attention, while actively participating in day-to-day governmental affairs is extremely important, and fulfills the fundamental basis of our democratic process.

The hearing, meanwhile, continues, with early indications that the three-panel appeals court won’t overturn the initial ruling by a Seattle judge against the travel ban. Either way, it’s expected to wind up in Supreme Court, so we will not know the end result for quite some time.

And throughout the process, Trump continues to disparage our independent judiciary.

People keep worrying if there will be a sense of fatigue from those who are critical of this current administration.

But when 135,000 people listen to an audio stream of a court hearing in the middle of a Wednesday … I think we’re OK.

On that note, I’m walking up to the White House front doors right now.

We’ll see how this goes.

Fake news and ‘alternative facts’ are threatening our democracy

Being a journalist is an extremely difficult and unforgiving job. I understand this firsthand because it was my profession for more than five years.

It’s called the ‘third estate’ for a reason. You serve as the objective storyteller. You hear both sides of the story, and then you report the facts and how both sides interpret it.

A journalist is not supposed to make friends. Indeed, if you’re doing your job correctly, you’re more likely to form enemies.

But what is expected between a journalist and the main entities it reports on is a mutual sense of respect and cooperation. An understanding that you’re doing your job and I’m doing my job. Sometimes our interests will align, and sometimes they will not. Nonetheless, we can maintain a professional relationship and treat each other cordially.

Journalism also carries a significant burden of responsibility. As the storyteller and purveyor of facts, you’re expected to present your information truthfully and objectively.

With your pen, you have the ability to shape public opinion. Thus, it is essential to get it right.

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It is fair to be skeptical of the media. One should always be vigilant of the truth and conduct their own research to verify facts, while double-checking sources that are listed in any given article or report.

But what you can not do is dismiss the press entirely. Because without it, democracy cannot prevail.

And right now, that very ingredient for democratic success — a free and open press — is under siege by the Trump administration.

On the stump, Trump pledged to “open up the libel laws,” a clear breach of First Amendment rights. While he’s toned down on that specific threat, the first few days of his administration have shown a clear agenda to undermine and discredit the press.

Two terms we’ve seen thrown around lately are things I’d never thought I’d hear associated with 21st century American politics: ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts.’

Fake news refers to deliberate attempts to publish stories to influence public opinion even though the writer knows the content to be false. The New York Times has done extensive reporting on this subject, actually interviewing people who have personally engaged in this nefarious enterprise.

Alternative facts is a term coined this past weekend by White House spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway to explain the conflicting data (proven to be false) used by White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer during his cantankerous first press briefing last weekend.

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Conservatives, emboldened by Trump, have begun using the “fake news” label incorrectly to slam stories that they don’t like, for instance, CNN’s reporting of the explosive yet unverified dossier compiled by a former British Spy regarding illicit personal and professional information Russia is harboring on Donald Trump.

Buzzfeed made the controversial decision to publish the dossier – which was brought to the attention of the FBI last summer, which, in turn, briefed Presidents Obama and Trump on it — in full, a decision that Buzzfeed’s editor-in-chief defended a few days later.

As a result, Donald Trump called these two news organizations “fake news” and a “failing pile of garbage,” respectively.

Under this administration, the once stable line between fact and fiction has become blurred, and I don’t think people appreciate how dangerous this is.

It is a fundamental need for the electorate to be educated. In a republic, we are the ones who choose who represents us. And we need an observant and watchful press to get us the information we need.

Undermining and mocking the press is what dictators do. Spreading lies to hoodwink the public is what authoritarian regimes do.

This is not OK.

Now, more than ever, the press needs to be protected, not denigrated and antagonized.

You can follow Trump’s lead and trash journalists all you want. They’re still going do to their job and tell you what you need to know.

I advise you to listen.

Mariah Carey’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve meltdown

New Year’s Eve is the time when we get to relive our youth. As all humans will learn, when you approach 30 years old, you will lose your desire to stay out very late.

Suddenly, the idea of hopping on a westbound train to New York City at 10 p.m. sounds unconscionable.

In fact, at that time, you’re already fantasizing about being in bed within the hour so you can get a good night’s rest and an early start tomorrow.

It’s lame. But it’s reality.

On New Year’s, however, all bets are off. No matter how old you are, you will plan to party, and not worry about what time you hit the sack.

Even better, there’s really no limit to how much you can drink. If you get sloppy drunk on New Year’s Eve, absolutely no one is going to judge you. It’s essentially a free pass.

So I hope a lot of you made it a night to remember. And if you did get a bit sloppy, then who cares? In fact, you can take solace in one single fact.

You did not have a worse night than Mariah Carey.

New Year's Eve 2017 In Times Square

Her meltdown was so hard on New Year’s Eve, that it occurred to me that I was wrong when I said there would be no more celebrity casualties in 2016.

Because minutes before 2017, Mariah Carey’s career died.

And I know that the year has already started off on a somber note. A terrorist attack in Istanbul killing more than three dozen people; partisan squabbling on Capitol Hill on the first day of the congressional session; a Long Island Rail Road derailment injuring more than 100 in Brooklyn.

But the fact that more people were inclined to discuss Mariah Carey instead of those things is indicative of our appetite for the mundane. No one wants to talk about death or political turmoil if they can avoid it. We want entertainment gossip, dammit.

And preferably, we want it at somebody’s expense. Am I right, Steve Harvey?

You all saw Mariah’s meltdown. And I understand that it probably wasn’t even her fault – there were technical difficulties and she decided to improvise rather than deliver a subpar vocal performance, given the circumstances.

Nonetheless, Mariah Carey is the clear loser in the public eye, and on top of her disastrous performance at the Rockefeller Christmas tree lighting two years ago, she’s redefining herself as an aging pop diva who can no longer cut it. Her New Year’s Eve fiasco may very well end up in the same breath as Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction (side note: how did Justin Timberlake get off so easy on that?) and Ashlee Simpson’s Saturday Night Live jig.

I’m sorry, Mariah. I know you’ve had an illustrious career and your vocal cords have clearly taken a toll from decades of performing. It’s only natural. But right now, after the 2016 we went through, we need somebody who we can universally gang up on.

Talking about how bad you sounded is not controversial. It doesn’t involve divulging one’s political affiliation.

Democrats and Trump supporters agree: you sucked.

And in no time, we will long for the time when the most hotly discussed topic was Mariah Carey.

So thank you, Mariah, for this distraction.

Let’s hope the rest of 2017 is equally as boring.

(It won’t be.)

The 2016 word of the year: ‘lit’

Each year, the preeminent English dictionaries release their word of the year — the word that was searched the most by users who were seeking its definition.

And in 2016, those words were clearly shaped by the year’s turbulent political discourse.

Dictionary.com went with ‘xenophobia,’ a term used to describe a fear of the other, and was widely used to decry populist movements in several countries that preached anti-immigrant sentiments.

Merriam-Webster, meanwhile, nearly ended up with ‘fascism,’ a type of far-right radical nationalism popularized by Hitler’s Nazi party, but a late surge allowed them to go with a much safer choice in ‘surreal.’

And Oxford’s word of the year was ‘post-truth,’ which essentially refers to a circumstance where beliefs and emotions are more likely to shape public opinion than objective facts.

Xenophobia, surreal and post-truth. Those words might as well have been stamped on a Trump podium during one of his rallies.

But anyway, the Weinblog rejects those words. Yes, I understand why they piqued people’slit curiosity enough to look them up, but, anyone who has followed popular culture this year knows that there’s another word that infected our collective vocabularies more than any other.

Lit.

There once was a time when that three-letter word would instantly make me think of some classic ’90s songs like “My Own Worst Enemy” or “Ziplock.” But in 2016, it took on a whole new meaning.

If you have a Facebook, or know at least one person under 25, then you have heard this word. And probably pretty recently.

Urban Dictionary defines it as “when something is turned up or popping.” In other words, it’s a slang term to describe something that is highly enjoyable, and to emphasize the intensity of that enjoyment — like a party, or your sobriety level.

You drunk bro?

Hell yeah. I’m mad lit.

Before you judge, just remember that’s it’s a marked improvement over “YOLO” and “I can’t even.”

How familiar you are with this term is definitely predicated on your age. If you’re in your late 20s, like me, it’s probably something you heard once or twice early in the year, lit-apitsignored, and now began hearing it with more regularity. And now you’re just in the puzzlement stage.

And I’ll admit that as an English major and former journalist, it does bother me that each successive generation somehow ends up inventing new words. We have so many freaking words at our disposal that we can use. There are literally dozens of words to describe every single feeling, action or thing. But most people don’t make the effort to learn them.

Indeed, they’re so adverse to doing so that they simply make ones up. And when one of those words is playful and fun enough, it catches on.

Soon enough, Merriam-Webster will incorporate lit as an accepted word.

We always wonder why people from England sound so smart. It’s not just the accent. It’s because they use the correct word to describe things.

In America, we either make ones up or change the meaning of other words.

Next time we wonder why our youth is falling behind on an international level, maybe we should realize that it’s our own fault.

Because, after all … we are our own worst enemies.

Oh well. if you can’t beat them, join them. I hope all your Christmases are lit.

Who knew Austrians would be the voice of reason?

We are living in an increasingly uncertain time in this world.

Residents in nation after nation, unhappy with the stagnancy of their own life in the post-recession era and the perception that their government is more concerned with their own role in the global economy rather than the well-being of their citizens, are lashing out in the most pragmatic way they can — elections.

The result has been a populist wave.

First it was Brexit. Then Trump. Then France’s leftist prime minister, hampered by dismal approval ratings, announced he won’t run for re-election next year.

And this week, a vote on a constitutional amendment in Italy that essentially turned into a referendum on the leadership of Democratic Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, ended with him announcing he would resign.

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So what happens now? Do we just accept that this is the way of the future? That developed nations are rejecting globalism and want to revert back to preserving their own national identity?

Do we want to tighten borders, limit trade and promote isolationism?

Because that seems to be the way people are leaning, when given the choice. And it may influence the outcome in elections next year in France, Germany and the Netherlands.

What nation will put a stop to this? What country will step up to the plate, and reject demagoguery and say yes to globalization?

Enter Austria, the birthplace of Adolf Hitler.

In an election on Sunday to determine its next president, Austrian voters rejected a far-right candidate, Norbert Hofer, whose Freedom Party was actually founded in the 1950s by Nazis, in favor of Green Party candidate Alexander Van der Bellen.

It’s too small of a sample size to know if this truly is a turning point. But it is refreshing to see that, somewhere, people are not giving into fear.

Austria, the place that 95 percent of Americans would not know existed if it wasn’t for Arnold Schwarzenegger. The place that whenever you write it or say it aloud you wish you were talking about Australia instead.

And the place that may have just shown the world that politicians can still campaign on a platform of unity and reason.

Now I’m not saying that all populist parties are bad. But this year has shown us that fringe parties and candidates — like a Donald Trump — can capitalize on people’s fears and anxieties like never before. If the trend were to continue, well, I don’t think it’d be too far-fetched to say that we’d possibly risk entering a global environment not too far off from where we were preceding the World Wars.

So it’s nice to have that one little domino that bends, but doesn’t break, and potentially stops the momentum of a populist free fall.

But hey, if things don’t change, we can always send Arnold Schwarzenegger back in time to change the past, right?

What to do when your president is an Internet troll

Most of us like to freely express ourselves through Twitter, mainly because it comes with little consequence.

There have been plenty of historical examples of people taking their anonymity for granted, only to see it backfire in their face. But for us average joes, whose followers consist of our close friends and Internet bots, we can pretty much tweet on — as long as we don’t say anything really stupid — and not worry about too much.

It’s only when you become famous when you immediately go back and delete all of your insensitive tweets.

Our tweets are there to offer a little bit of humor, maybe some political commentary or just some unmitigated expression of emotion based on recent developments in our life. But they really carry no weight. Our tweets aren’t going to change anything.

But what happens when the person who possesses the most powerful job in the world is a reckless tweeter?

That is currently what we are dealing with. A man whose Twitter account was actually taken away from him at one point by his own campaign, and now, whose tweets can actually be viewed as potential policy shifts for the country that we live in.

What a time to be alive, folks. What a time.

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This is the quandary that we find ourselves in now. How seriously do we take Donald Trump’s tweets? After all, while they sound just like any generic rant from your commonplace Twitter troll, the reality is that they still serve as a declarative statement by our nation’s leader.

It’s especially problematic for journalists, who are currently tackling the question of whether they should even bother spending time and resources reporting on Donald Trump’s tweets.

When Donald Trump tweets that flag burning should be illegal, do we take it seriously that he may actually infringe upon our First Amendment rights?

There’s been a couple of interesting schools of thought on this topic. In a New York Times article about this, the editor of Politico said they must report on each one, but at the same time it is their responsibility to inform the public how realistic Trump’s tweet really is to potentially be put into action.

Trevor Noah tackled a similar subject on the Daily Show, insisting that when Donald Trump says something outrageous, whether in person or through social media — like that “millions voted illegally” in this year’s election — that instead of fact-checking it, they need to push Donald Trump harder to prove it with evidence, which he inevitably won’t.

And that’s not even getting into the fact that, by making this statement, Donald Trump is actually questioning the validity of an election that he won.

Again, can’t make this stuff up.

Others think Trump is just doing what he does best: saying ridiculous things in order to distract us from the obvious truth, like the fact that his immense conflicts of interest involving his business make it nearly impossible for him to make a domestic or foreign policy decision without him having a personal stake in it.

But don’t worry, he’s putting the smartest people around him to make those decisions. Like an attorney general who was once blocked from becoming a federal judge for making racist comments; a national security adviser who once said Islam is not a religion; an education secretary whose advocacy for more charter schools in Detroit has resulted in the city having the worst school systems in the nation; and a secretary of health and human services who, if he had it his way, would prevent millions from having affordable healthcare and women’s health resources.

Maybe his next appointee will be better though.

Like … Sarah Palin?

God help us.

Why Fidel Castro’s death is such a big deal

Cuba, an island country in the Caribbean Sea a mere 90 miles away from the southern coast of Florida, is the 78th most populous country in the world, with some 11.4 million people.

A place like that is typically an afterthought in global politics.

I mean, a country like Uzbekistan has nearly triple the amount of people in it. And when do we ever talk about them? How many people before reading this sentence even knew that Uzbekistan was a country?

But we all know Cuba. Its imprint on not just Latin America, not just North America, but the world, has been significant for the last half century.

And that’s all because of one man: Fidel Castro.

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The average American would probably hear Fidel Castro’s name and automatically think: “bad man.” They’d associate with him a long line of other known dictators like Benito Mussolini, Joseph Stalin or Saddam Hussein.

And it’s true that Fidel Castro was a dictator. It’s true that he’s exiled, jailed, even killed dissidents, and that he’s suppressed free speech and the rights of the LGBT community within his nation. And that makes him a bad man.

But I think it’s also important to understand why we all know who Fidel Castro is. And why the entire world knows who he is.

A revolutionist and a rebel to his core, Fidel Castro has survived civil war, imprisonment, exile, assassination attempts from within his own nation and abroad. He’s bedeviled 11 American presidents, which began with Dwight Eisenhower’s embargo on the nation in 1960 and was solidified with the failed Bay of Pigs invasion under John F. Kennedy in 1961.

And it was in 1962 when Castro allowed the Soviet Union to place nuclear warheads in Cuba, pointing directly at the United States, putting the world on the brink of nuclear war.

The animosity between the two nations has not subsided. It wasn’t until 2015 when Barack Obama, after nearly two years of secret negotiations, re-opened the possibility of relations with Cuba– nine years after Fidel shifted power to his brother because of illness.

All that is significant for historic purposes. But there is much more to be fascinated with in regards to how Fidel Castro actually ran his country.

Castro

For one, it’s the only Communist nation that has not failed. Ever. The Soviet Union collapsed, along with its satellite states. China drastically altered its economy to adapt capitalist policies. North Korea is a hot mess.

Cuba’s healthcare and medical industries are widely praised. Education is public and free, and 99.8 percent of Cubans are literate. 90 percent of Cubans own their own homes. And poverty is almost nonexistent.

And for 50 years, the man leading a small island country managed to stymie another country roughly 30 times the size of it.

Again, there’s a reason why it’s such big news that Fidel Castro died. And it explains why there was such polarizing responses to his death, exemplified by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s warm remembrance of him; and Donald Trump’s single celebratory tweet.

But I encourage you all to learn a little bit more about what made him such a mythical and larger than life figure. Because even though he did indeed do many bad things, he’s also implemented things of significance that nobody had ever done before. And there will probably never be any one else like him.

I wouldn’t quite call him The Most Interesting Man in the World, but from a recent history perspective, he’s pretty up there.

And oddly enough, I’ve been craving a Cubano sandwich ever since I heard he died.

I know what I’m having for lunch tomorrow.