Tag Archives: free speech

Black snow drifts

Last Tuesday, April 22, was Earth Day. The first Earth Day was held in 1970 as concern for the health of the planet grew. Cities were often covered in smog. Air quality alerts were not uncommon. Lakes, rivers and streams were polluted to the point of being unfit for recreational use. The world became aware of the extinction or near extinction of many species of animals. Roadsides were often littered with garbage tossed out of car windows.

Over the last 44 years, we have come a long way. Air quality in American cities and many cities around the world has greatly improved. Many rivers have been cleaned up and run cleaner than they have for a century. The efforts to save species close to extinction have been successful in some cases. Our roadsides, while not perfect, are far cleaner than they were before the 1970s.

We have made improvements in how much pollution our cars and trucks spew out. Factories and generation plants are more efficient and their smokestacks are cleaner. Our refrigerators are more energy efficient. Ozone destroying aerosols and freon are no longer used. Lead paints and asbestos are a thing of the past.

Becoming more aware of how our lives affect the rest of the earth has made a difference. We have more work to do if future generations are going to have a good place to live.

Scientists agree that we need to reduce our production and release of greenhouse gases such a carbon dioxide and methane and we need to do it soon. Other scientists point to the loss of rain forests and grasslands as sources of atmospheric carbon. All agree that loss of habitat for wildlife, such as the Asian elephant, the monarch butterfly and thousands of other species will have earth-wide affects in the future.

It is difficult to understand how we are all interconnected and interdependent. Day to day, life just seems to go on. When we are faced with a crisis, we step up and do what is needed. During WW I and WW II, citizens coped with rationed food, gasoline, steel and more. Homeowners grew Victory Gardens in their back yards and bought bonds to fund the war efforts. When faced with the disastrous results of the agricultural mismanagement and drought of the 1930s, farmers found better ways to protect the soil from the erosion of wind and pounding rain. We planted shelter belts and grew cover crops and strips in our fields. We developed shorter varieties of grains that took less moisture and stood up better in the wind. When our fertilizers showed up in rivers and lakes and produced dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico, we found ways to use just the amount of fertilizer needed, when it is needed.

We made progress. In the drought of the 1980s, we had bulldozed some of the tree rows and neglected the soil until the dust began blowing again. Then in this part of the prairie, we had rain, much rain, and we again forgot those springs with dirty snow and blowing topsoil. For the next decade or more we had more than enough moisture to keep the wind from blowing our soil away. A bigger problem was dirt being washed away as snow melted, rivers and streams flooded and ditches overflowed. Things have again changed. In spite of what seemed like an abundance of snow last winter, the soil surface is dry. Even before this year’s snow was completely melted, dirt began to blow from unprotected fields. The possibility of drought worries us as we plan our crops and think about pastures for the summer.

When Congress debated conservation compliance being linked with eligibility for crop insurance, farmers’ love for the land and careful stewardship was held up as a rational for not “telling us how to farm.” Indeed, many farmers fit those descriptions. Not all fields are blowing in the wind. Those fields neighboring road ditches with drift dirt piling up along the edge, however, are visible evidence that there may be justification for conservation requirements and call into question the image of farmers as careful stewards.

It is not our land to do with as we please. It is not our earth to use up and to throw away. The Bible says the earth is the Lord’s, as is everything in it. Our ownership is temporary at best. At some point, we will sell our land or leave it to the next generation. We are just the short term caretakers. As such, we must make sure we steward this great gift with love and care and conserve it’s bounty for the future.

Black snow and drifting topsoil are signs that we are not taking care of what we have borrowed from our children and their children. We are called to do better.

Copyright © 2014 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains


Talking about politics in mixed company

While attending a conference recently, I had the chance to visit with an old friend over supper. We have known each other for more than 35 years. We visited about growing older, the changes in our work, caught up on the lives of our children and shared the joys of being grandparents. Eventually we got around to politics.

My friend is a Republican and I’m….not. We probably disagree about just as many issues as we agree on. We share many experiences and ethical positions. We have both been involved in sustainable agriculture for decades. We disagree mostly over how we get where we need to go, not where we are headed.

My friend bemoaned the fact that he didn’t recognize the GOP any longer, nor did he recognize the Democratic party. We both grieved the loss of moderation in politics. When, my friend complained, did both parties start leaning toward their extremes? What happened to moderate Republicans and where did moderate Democrats go? When did it become political suicide to compromise or to seek the middle ground?

Perhaps we both have selective memory when it comes to the politics of old. In the past, we experienced corrupt party bosses who extracted favors from people whom they elected. The twenty-first century is not the first time in our country’s history when the rich bought elections or those elected. The scale of monetary influence, however, has reached new highs in recent years. Political rhetoric has been vitriolic, mean and full of misinformation in the past. Certainly politics has never been without corruption, vote rigging, and influence peddling.

In the past, however, there were some restraints on how much money could be funneled by corporations into influencing elections. The Supreme Court opened a Pandora’s Box when they ruled in the “Citizen’s United” case that corporations are entitled to the same rights to free speech as are individual citizens. Apparently, free speech is the same thing as injecting money into politics. In the last four years, corporate money spent on elections has skyrocketed. We may believe that we are not like other voters and are not influenced by the negative advertising and media bought with those dollars. One would, however, have to live in a cabin the woods with no telephone, television, radio, internet or newspaper to be totally uninfluenced by the propaganda techniques those dollars can buy.

As I was growing up, our neighbors down the road had a mixed marriage. She was a Republican and he was a Democrat. They cancelled each other’s vote in most elections. They had frequent and heated arguments about politics. It never broke up their marriage. They knew they would not change each other’s opinions and they loved and respected one another. In recent years I have known politics to end lifelong friendships. We avoid discussing politics among friends because we make those discussions personal. Differing opinions are often depicted not as another way of looking at the world but as being evil, stupid, corrupt, dishonest. Liberal and Conservative, depending on whose mouth the words are coming out of, are used as derogatory and insulting descriptives. Both sides slide into the trap of describing the nefarious and corrupt motives of the opposite side, compounded by others’ profound stupidity for not seeing things our way.

Sometimes the charges leveled across the political aisle are deliberately misleading and even outright lies. We believe them because it seems to justify what we want to believe. Other times the information is partly true, but exaggerated. Most of the time, the sound bites and news releases that make up much of what passes as journalism is blatant public relations messages, using the same principles of opinion manipulation as propaganda.

Even though we call ourselves Christians and claim that our position is based on the teachings of the Bible, we skip the commandment to not bear false witness against our neighbor. We miss the admonition to place a positive light on what others say and do. It is false witness to claim our President is the antichrist or that our senators or representatives are corrupt, especially when we only have a facebook post or an email allegation to back it up. It is lazy citizenship and contrary to the Ten Commandments to repeat half truths and wild accusations of evil motives without spending some time to verify facts.

If political views range from very conservative to very liberal, the majority of people probably fall somewhere close to either side of the middle of the curve. In an atmosphere where the extreme on either end are winners with no compromise, the majority of us become losers. The goals we all share…a better life for all, freedom, and the right to a pursuit of happiness…become lost. We become a society of “them” and “us,” divided, alienated, angry. We all lose. We need differing opinions. None of us can see all of the unintended consequences of our proposals. We need each others’ points of view.

My friend and I agreed that money’s influence needs to be restricted in politics. We agreed that determination of congressional and legislative districts needs to be removed from partisan politics and gerrymandering. We agreed that compromise must be held up as a desirable goal and not as a sign of giving in or of being weak. We need to change how we do politics for the best interests of future generations.

We agreed that becoming grandparents changes everything.

Copyright © 2014 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains

The right to free speech and right speech

Comments on September 11 attacks on US nationals in the Middle East have ranged from justified condemnation of these acts of violent terrorism to defending the free speech rights of the film maker who posted on YouTube a hate-filled, disrespectful trailer for an equally provocative film.

As details of the attack on our country’s embassy in Libya unfolded, it seems apparent that these attacks were well planned and orchestrated and possibly carried out by organized terrorist groups. There are many questions about the origins and motives of those who made and publicized the film on YouTube. The film, reported to be a poorly made, anti-Islamic video that denigrates the prophet Mohammed, was dubbed into Arabic and excerpts were released across the Middle East just weeks before September 11, 2012. The video may have been a convenient excuse to inflame the passions of devout Muslims who might have otherwise not joined in the fight.

We seem to have misunderstandings about what it means to have free speech. Our Constitution and its amendments do not protect all speech. You cannot make false and libelous or slanderous statements about someone else. You cannot make statements that would prompt others to cause physical harm to someone else. Yes, those who made this film probably are protected by the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights. If there was evidence that the producers of the film were deliberately trying to incite violence, however, their rights would not (and should not) be protected by the Constitution.

Politicians have the right to criticize each other. Their opponents have the right to refute them and to level equal criticism. It would seem even half-truths and exaggerations are considered to be covered under the right to free speech in politics.

Just because we have the right to free speech, it does not mean that everything we say is justifiable. Yes, we do have the right to say things that are silly, hurtful, mean, hateful and prejudicial. We may even have the right to make disgusting and demeaning movies about others’ religion. That doesn’t however absolve us of being responsible for what we say and do. Free speech doesn’t mean that our words do not nor will not have consequences. Some of those consequences will reach far beyond our own lives and into the lives of others. We are responsible for what comes out of our mouths or from our keyboards. If I have the right to say what I think, you also have the right to voice an opposing view. We both have the responsibility to be sure we are being truthful, respectful and fair.

The internet with its many social networking options like Facebook and Twitter, video and blog publishing capability, and comment boards makes it even more important that we think before we exercise our free speech. Words are far more powerful when they can spread around the world at a speed of gigabytes per second.

I can post nasty comments about my boss on Facebook or YouTube. If my comments are not libelous or threatening, I have the right to do so. My boss, however, has the right to fire me or to discipline me. At the very least, the next staff meeting is going to be really uncomfortable. Others who disagree with me have the right to call me a jerk. Finding a new job might be difficult. Those are the consequences of my exercising my rights.

Where is the line between teasing and bullying? How many young people have committed suicide because of the cyber-bullying of their peers? Where is the line between an unpopular opinion and racial prejudice, hate and inciting violence? Just because free speech is a right, that doesn’t make all speech right.

If a hate filled, disrespectful and mean-spirited movie posted on YouTube incited even one person to join the attacks which resulted in Ambassador Christopher Steven’s and others’ deaths, the person(s) who posted it should be held responsible for their actions, not defended for the exercise and abuse of their right to free speech.

Copyright © 2012 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains