Tag Archives: SCOTUS

Should Everyone Vote?

This post was inspired by (and largely based on) an excellent Opinion piece on the CNN website by L. Z. Granderson. You can find it here.

In Western democracies, we’re accustomed to the idea that all people should vote, that all people should have a political voice and some measure of influence in how their federal, state, or local government is run, and in who is running those governments. And, in theory, this is a fantastic idea!

But how often do we really stop to think about it? The principle of voting rights seems to be sacrosanct in America and many other Western countries, and any challenge to it is usually treated with shock or outright horror. Most people see the right to vote as a sacred, God-given right, especially here in America; and I would agree, to a certain extent.

But reading the piece that I mentioned above gave me pause. True, all people have a right to participate in their political process, and people should exercise that right. But there’s a drawback and a danger to this as well. A disheartening number of people are painfully ignorant of their own political system. I don’t just mean the actual mechanisms of the system (how elections work, what Congress does, the significance of the Supreme Court), but also the policies and decisions under consideration by our government.

Allow me to throw a disclaimer in here. I am by no means equating ignorance to idiocy. I’m not calling into question the intelligence of the average American, but rather the average American’s commitment to being an involved and informed voter. People may be extremely passionate their pet politicians or policies, but so much of the time, they either limit their learning to one particular issue or simply don’t bother to be informed about any of the issues they may claim to care about so much. It’s easy to denounce Obamacare, talk about creating jobs, or express deep concern about the budget deficit. But if voters are not aware of the real costs, benefits, repercussions, and payoffs of such things, how can they be qualified to vote about them? If one does not really understand the principles of Obamacare, what it takes to create more jobs, or what the magnitude of our budget deficit is, how can they vote responsibly on these issues?

Think of it this way: If a person knows nothing about navigation or seamanship, would you ask them to help you sail the Atlantic? If a friend of yours doesn’t understand the first thing about chemistry and physics, would you invite him to run the LHC for a day? Note that the people in these examples are not stupid; they just haven’t been given the knowledge to do such things! So it is, I think, with voting. If people are not properly informed about the issues their country faces, how can they vote well? We spend a lot of time getting up in arms against our politicians, blaming them for our problems, and in some cases, they are at fault. But it seems that the bigger problem here lies with the people electing them. If we expect our politicians to fix our country, then we also have to be willing to do the work required to stay informed and updated about what needs to be fixed.

Now, I’m not suggesting that we form some erudite council of qualified voters (though this is almost what our republican political system is) to make our decisions for us, and disqualify all others from the political process. But what I am advocating is that we as voters have greater respect for the power of voting we’ve been given. While it may be a basic human right to have a fair government that operates under the consent of the governed, we are also under an obligation to treat that right with the respect it demands. And the most important way to do that is by getting informed.

So if the title of this post seems radical or provocative… it is. I’m still struggling with this question myself, but perhaps if people are not willing to do the legwork required to vote responsibly, they shouldn’t exercise that right at all. As Spiderman came to learn from his Uncle Ben, with great power comes great responsibility. (That’s the extent of my superhero comic knowledge.) I’m not discouraging anyone from voting; in fact, I wish more people would. Instead, I’m encouraging people to go beyond simple sound bite politics and find out what they’re really voting for before they pick up the pencil and cast their ballot.

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Filed under Politics & Power

Pay Them No Mind

They must have missed the "Love your neighbor" part of the Bible.

In a striking and unilateral defense of the First Amendment right of freedom of speech, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Westboro Baptist Church today, guaranteeing them the right to picket at military funerals and stage the hateful protests they’re so well-known for.

According to the SCOTUS brief on the case, Snyder v. Fred Phelps et al, the church has a constitutional right to picket funerals and stage their demonstrations, no matter how controversial the message they preach is.

For those of you who are uneducated about the WBC, let me give you a brief primer. WBC is a “church” in Kansas headed by a rapidly aging, hate-spewing ex-lawyer named Fred Phelps. The church frequently pickets military funerals or gay pride events to inform Americans that their tolerance for sin, particularly the “sin” of homosexuality, has put them on God’s black list. You may recognize them from pictures of Midwesterners holding large signs that read, “GOD HATES FAGS.” A little further research on the insane beliefs held by the Phelps’ will show that they believe that more or less everyone person who isn’t a member of their hate-mongering church has been signed up for eternal damnation for some crime or other.

Back to the Supreme Court decision! The court ruled, in an 8-1 decision in fact, that WBC does in fact have a right to say what they want where they want, no matter how much hatred is behind their words. As long as Phelps and friends adhere to the given guidelines for orderly protests/pickets, which they did in the case brought before SCOTUS, they are merely exercising their constitutional rights.

To me, this really brings up a crucial and confusing moral question: Do people have a basic right to say and believe¬†anything they please, so long as it doesn’t bring direct harm to others? The Supreme Court answers that question with a definitive yes, and so do I. The most basic principle of the First Amendment to our constitution is the right to free speech. Even if the only things that a person or a group has to say are hateful, disagreeable, or downright wrong, that person or group has a right to say them.

Now, I’m by no means defending the opinions of the Westboro Baptist Church. On the contrary, I’m saying that, while the opinions that these people hold are utterly despicable and deplorable, they still have a right, in this country, to voice those views. Because our government is made up of so many diverse groups of people, often with diametrically opposite views, and our broader population is even more diverse, it’s impossible to say that any one view should get special treatment. While almost everyone in the country disagrees with WBC, if we were to make a law against them, then we would be institutionalizing the majority viewpoint, rather than an unbiased law. And that’s exactly what the Constitution was meant to prevent… right?

This does bring up one issue though: What if what they say¬†is more than controversial, but outright dangerous? The UK has explicitly banned Fred Phelps and one of this daughters from entering their country, and threatened to exclude any other WBC members who tried to get in. Their reasoning is that the message of hate that the Phelps’ preach has the potential to incite hatred and violence toward gays in the country, and that this is reason enough to keep them well away from British soil. This other side of the argument is a difficult one to deal with. On the one hand, I want to say that I support the rights of all people to say and believe what they choose. But isn’t there a limit? Once a person’s belief starts inflicting terrible emotional harm on others (as WBC does at military funeral pickets), hasn’t it gone too far?

To be perfectly honest, I don’t know which way I should lean on this issue. I do, however, have an answer for how to handle the WBC: Minimize their impact. As it is, the WBC makes national news more often than almost any other religious institution (though I would be hard-pressed to say that the WBC is really any kind of religion), even though the church is really only composed of a small core of insanely radical nutjobs. Because they’re so radical and hateful in their message, the church gets an incredibly disproportionate amount of coverage and attention. So, I would say that their power doesn’t come from their message, their signs, or even their protests. It comes from their infamy.

People treat the WBC as an influential force of evil in the States, which to some extent is true. But truth be told, they have almost no real power or influence on peoples’ opinions! The more the Westboro Baptist Church is treated like a force to be reckoned with, the more strongly they’ll voice their repulsive opinions. Counter-protest them when you can, tell your friends who they are, but don’t treat them as if they matter even a bit. The more distress and pain we show because of these peoples’ actions, the more they’ll continue to inflict suffering. So if you ever come across Fred Phelps and his cronies, turn around and pay them no mind, instead focusing on the people they’re trying to hurt. Because we want our children and grandchildren to look back at these people with utter disbelief, and laugh at the idea that someone could ever be so ridiculous.

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Filed under Constitution & Controversy