An open letter concerning the continental congress and the ‘roots’ of US history
The President of the United States
The Members of the United States Senate
The Members of the United States House of Representatives
Presidential Cabinet Members
Interested, committed citizens of the United States
March 5, 2017
To Whom It May Concern:
I am not writing this open letter because I think that I am any particular person, or particularly special to the pursuit of individual liberty, as the case may actually be. I write from the perspective of a citizen of these United States, who lived through the partisan Bush and Obama administrations as well as their associated political theatricality, in an attempt to express the fears I feel are shared by a great many in our population.
I work with social media data on behalf of companies who represent massive brands that each have millions and millions of fans in their respective social media networks. I am writing because social media networking and its influence on marketing, public relations, and communication strategy in general threatens to break down the foundation of our US society.
It might turn out that these fears are overblown, but in the midst of many ongoing current political conversations, someone needs to say something.
You will notice an absence of references to specific politicians or events. This omission is intentional, as a great many people in our country want to sideline the discussion by pointing to the material realities that confront many citizens each and every day. Many Americans continue to struggle with racism, institutional, intentional, or otherwise. Many Americans continue to struggle with sexism, institutional, intentional, or otherwise. To deny the existence of these realities is like pulling the blindfold over our eyes or willingly burying our heads in the sand, oblivious to the struggles many Americans actually share every day, like feeding our families, accomplishing our dreams, and establishing a secure future for generations to come.
It’s no secret that many Americans feel like our country is divided. Some have gone as far as to suggest that the US is sitting on the precipice of a pending constitutional crisis. There are allegations that government officials are acting in their own or private interests above the interests of average people like me, my friends, and my family. There are allegations that our intelligence superstructure is no longer credible, allegations that political parties themselves compromise the interests of the citizenry, allegations that businesses don’t care about workers anymore, and a lot of distrust. A lot of it.
Citizens of our country, citizens of every political inclination — conservatives, progressives, and independents — cry out for justice. But what good are cries for justice when nobody is listening? In the same way people ask if a tree makes a sound when falling in the forest, even if nobody else is around, many citizens in the United States are making a legitimate argument — that it feels like legislative communication, indeed, the legislative backbone of the United States as broken down entirely.
It feels like nobody is listening, anymore. We’re all just shouting at one another, unwilling to engage and consider that we might be wrong, too. Even I have found myself yelling at my partner, at others in my life in general, when we discuss topics and news articles that affect the communities to which I personally belong. This open letter is an attempt to explore why this reality is something that I face every day recently, as do many other US citizens.
When citizens talk, legislators listen. That’s the job of being an elected official.
I am writing neither to condemn nor to condone the actions of any candidate, from any political organization or party, within our recent political history. My intention is merely to provoke people, wherever they operate within our current reality, to consider that we are the ones who have created and condoned this our communications crisis, so we need to do the work to unravel it.
I am, again, speaking only from my personal perspective to suggest that I have contributed to creating this problem for myself. Truthfully, I feel like most of the United States is complicit in this problem: we’ve allowed to let social media break down and fall apart. It’s easy to understand why.
This pattern, of repeated protest and social segmentation, is the history of the United States. We are the unfortunate, unknowing victims of social media’s unique power to destroy communication worldwide.
I can only speak for myself, but the friends in my social media news feeds speak often for themselves. Again, the message is simple: the reality is that they consider their communities under attack because that’s how it feels to live in their shoes.
They’re worried about the direction of so many policies in this country. Latino/a friends of mine are worried about immigration policies, whether or not they’re going to see their friends and family again. Black friends feel like cops often get what feels like a ‘free pass’ when it comes to excessive use of force. White friends are worried about border security and economic instability. Many citizens, Republicans, Democrats, and Independents included, have a right to be worried. The reality is simple: they’re just doing what social media tells us to do, which is share our lives online and how we feel.
Because I have transgender friends, I don’t always agree with them politically, but I think they should have access to medical treatment that helps them live happy, productive lives. I think my transgender friends should be able to go to the bathroom in comfort. It doesn’t really bother me or anyone I know that much and, if we stop to think about it, how many of us really ever encounter transgender people on a daily basis? I can see why trans kids in schools might feel singled out to have to go all the way to the nurse’s office to pee, especially if that’s the only place they’re allowed to do so.
My heart hurts to see posts from trans kids who would rather be dangerously dehydrated at school than ever risk using the bathroom or locker room.
I know that many communities are under attack — transgender people of color, particularly transgender women of color, continue to be murdered at a rate that feels too fast to be losing potential sisters I never got a chance to meet, learn from, or love. I’m not here to make any arguments about why they are being murdered. The reality is that they are. I’m not transgender myself, but I know these things because they happen to the people in my social media news feeds. There might be some overblown, reactionary commentary, but generally I think these people are just trying to make their way in the world and being given a really rough time in the name of doing so. I can understand, even though I don’t have to deal with it personally.
I know that transgender youth feel targeted because they want to live like other kids of their gender in schools. I’m not here to make any arguments about why these children and young adults feel targeted, but again, the reality is that they do.
And, really, who are we to tell them that they’re wrong? That feels like a shitty way to treat anybody online anymore. That said, I really understand the impulse to fire back. Are the fears of Latino/a citizens really that unfounded when we can’t go more than a week without a story about ICE officers deporting someone that seems especially callous?
Are the fears of Black citizens really that unreasonable to suggest that a legacy of racial prejudice might be unfairly creating dangerous situations for young black men?
Do transgender women of color disproportionately experience street harassment for their identities? Are trans kids really routinely bullied in school?
It’s what social media teaches us to do, after all. Post a response, post in affirmation, post an argument, just post. Post post post.
Below that social media post? There’s a handy little reply button, or even a share button, that makes sure we can tell other people how we feel about this thing we’re posting. It’s not even limited to social networking sites themselves anymore, as share buttons have increasingly popped up everywhere on the internet so that, no matter where we are or what we’re doing, we have the option to tell everyone else about it with one tap.
But when people are talking about how they feel and experience what they perceived as a discriminatory incident, is it really fair for anyone not directly involved in that situation to comment as to whether or not they are wrong, or to suggest that this person’s judgment is inherently biased/compromised?
I get the impulse to go to social media looking for a sense of community and support, truly I do, but it feels like sometimes we run the risk of allowing that community to slowly shift into what we want to be our personal social media army. It’s okay for people to disagree with us and, more importantly, I’d argue that these disagreements are the point of communication in the first place — to seek common ground between two people. To learn about each other.
Do you really enjoy just hearing your own opinions all the time? I think that would make for a desperately boring and monotonous existence. But that’s exactly how we’re shaping social media networks to create more effective echo chambers.
So much so, in fact, that we’re increasingly just cutting out people who disagree with us.
I’m not here to speak to the fears of folks concerned about immigration, or racism, or sexism individually both because I don’t personally have those experiences, and because it feels like we’re all confronting some part of this communications crisis together.
I’ll be honest, too, the whole ‘fake news’ epidemic kind of proves to me that this argument feels fundamentally true: if we were really interacting with people who agreed with us on many substantive policy issues, how could we have let ‘fake news’ affect an entire election?
Answer: we weren’t interested in actual communication, we were interested in having an argument and making our own opinions heard.
It’s definitely more ‘comfortable’ to live this way in the immediate sense, but I fear that it’s going to contribute to the breakdown of society should we let it continue.
I’m not here to make any arguments about why transgender women of color are being murdered, or to make any arguments about the targeting of transgender youth in schools particularly because I can’t usually speak to those specific scenarios. I know what publicly available information and data *suggests* is the motivating factor behind these incidents, but I’m not here to characterize the motives of other citizens in this country.
I’m not going to characterize the motives of others because that’s how I want members of my community, including myself, to be treated when it comes to describing how we experience this American life. I don’t want people to look at my perception of the world, the reality that I experience every day, and then use my perspective to diminish my credibility. I don’t think anybody likes it when our perspectives are casually thrown out as ‘inherently biased,’ regardless of where we come from, how we look, how we live, and/or how we love. As a transgender woman, I can speak a little bit to how that feels, personally, to watch my credibility as a woman, as a citizen of the United States, diminished on national television. I can, from those feelings, imagine how others might feel similarly, too, but it wouldn’t be fair to say I know how they’re feeling exactly.
I mean, it’s never fair or, never feels fair to us when someone else gets to narrate what we said or what we meant by it. I’m reminded of the phrase, ‘stop putting those words in my mouth.’
Almost everyone has experienced that moment where we sent a text message that was interpreted the wrong way. If it’s a misunderstanding between two people, it’s usually pretty simple to fix those kinds of issues and come to a common understanding.
Social media networks elevate, perpetuate, and advertise that cycle, encouraging users to post, post, post our content to support networks. They tell us that we are enriching our lives by using social media to share and communicate the things that happen in our lives, the things that enrich us personally and showcase what we believe in, or with increasing importance, as a declaration of who we are online. Of course there is some truth to the idea that building connections between people is a good idea.
Is it possible that our country has had too much of a good idea (social networking)?
Social media is like making sure everyone can communicate with their own personal billboard. Worse, I think it creates an incentive and/or a demand for users to ramp up the production quality of their posts. The things that garnered a thousand likes two years ago might only manage a hundred today. Social networking best practices have taught us that everything can be considered a billboard-worthy idea to post on social media for our friends and family.
Miscommunications, when easily cleared up between two people who know each other, often snowball into giant discussions of access and privilege, with hostile attitudes and allegations of bigotry and intolerance lobbed at both sides of the discussion. Social media takes these misunderstandings and posts them on billboards, advertising them to our friends and family. Sometimes, we’re able to intervene and stop the worst elements of these interactions from getting out of control. Sometimes, however, because we’re real people with jobs to do and lives worth living, we can’t step in, we can’t say anything to correct the tone of discussion. But it rages on all the same, outside of our control. How many of us have had an entire debate play out in the notifications we get either via email or on our phones, all from social media networks?
As a country, our cultural memory is often selective. When we want to make an argument to suggest something about the core fiber of the country, people often point back to the ‘founding fathers’ as an explanation that our country was founded on European Christian principles, or as a melting pot welcoming immigrants from all over the globe. They point to the founders as though there were some single vision for this thing we’ve all come to know as the “United States of America.”
Just like our scenario with posting to social media above, there’s some truth to the idea that the founders had a vision for what this country is supposed to be. Yet again, we are forced to question: Is it possible that our country exhibits too much reliance on overly generic, historic “American traditions” without properly examining that context?
There are obvious instances where history tells us we have screwed up, that we should not ever repeat these actions — years of US inaction in the face of the Holocaust, for example. There are also scenarios where insisting on our history above all else tends to diminish the reality that we currently occupy.
Our traditions are not always compatible with modern society, which seems like an easy-enough argument for most citizens to accept.
Slavery, and its legacies, for example, are a “tradition of the United States’ history.” We should obviously not repeat this particular segment of our past and, importantly, acknowledge the ways in which this history leaves fingerprints in the ways we allow it to continue to operate. Acknowledging our history, culturally, means acknowledging that we’ve been wrong in the past as a society. We screwed up in the past, hugely, and those sentiments aren’t going to just go away, particularly when many citizens who still live in this country have relatives who were owned by past relatives of other citizens. And we somehow expect these folks to be tolerant of the idea that we’re giving violence committed on black bodies by law enforcement an ‘easy pass?’
That doesn’t feel fair, particularly if you’re on the side that loses a family member to a gunshot that should never have taken place. I’m not here to take a position on police violence, but to point back to our past.
Sexism, and its legacies, for example, are another “tradition of the United States’ history,” but we would do well to acknowledge, as a society, that women and/or the female-bodied tend to make up at least half our population. Consider the case many legislators try to make, restrictions placed on abortion: many legislators are currently male. In fact, most of our current legislative body is comprised of men and/or the male-bodied. Yet, the Supreme Court decided in Roe v. Wade that women are afforded a right to abortion as a medical procedure, regardless of whether or not they want to have one.
I can personally say that I’ve never heard of a woman who actually was excited about actually having an abortion. Generally speaking — though this is again admittedly only my own personal experience — women in my life talk about abortions like they talk about buying car insurance, just in case. Many of my female friends have kept up a saved stash of around $500 to pay for an abortion since they turned 18, just in case. Some women I know have saved more than that, just in case they have to travel to another state or stay overnight in another city to have the procedure done because of restrictions that have been or potentially could be enacted on this medical procedure they want the right to have, just in case.
I know that it doesn’t feel fair to these women, these friends of mine, when legislative bodies full of mostly-male legislative bodies continue to be the ones who decide what’s a ‘reasonable’ restriction on a medical procedure that they’ll never personally have to experience. It feels, to these women, as if their realities and needs are being dictated to them by policy, not first informing the direction of policy with quality information.
Those who oppose abortions often insist that women who have abortions and the doctors who perform them are murderers, that these people have willingly taken human life.
That doesn’t really feel fair, either, particularly
I’m not here to condemn or condone abortions, the people who support the right to abortion, or the people who oppose abortion as a medical procedure. It would be unfair to characterize them as unequivocal monsters. I am here to point, again, to our past.
It doesn’t feel fair when others insist that transgender people are sick, dangerous, or sexually deviant, despite our protests to the contrary. It doesn’t feel fair to have a bunch of legislators that curtail health options that are necessary for my friends and loved ones to go out, do their jobs, and live their lives as a free and independent American citizens.
We didn’t always understand depression in this country. We didn’t always understand everything about human development or human psychology, so much so that we still don’t. It would be ignorant to propose that we know everything there is to know about being a living, breathing human, particularly when there are a world of experiences out there that we cannot, ourselves, speak to will full confidence that we’re right. We haven’t lived those lives. To pretend we can speak to what it means or feels like to live those lives does a disservice to those who actually bear the burden of existing in the midst of these struggles.
Racism is real and active in our country. If you have skin of any color, you are part of this system, sometimes unconsciously doing or supporting things that adversely affect those with different skin colors. Sometimes these actions are discriminatory, sometimes they are intentional, and sometimes they even go entirely unreprimanded. If you’re affected by the incident, it’s natural and normal to stick up for yourself. But it would be wrong and insensitive to automatically assume that we understand how other people think by projecting our realities on them.
Sexism is real and active in our country, too. If you identify as ‘male,’ ‘female,’ or otherwise, you are part of this system, sometime unconsciously doing or supporting things that adversely affect those with a different sexual or gender-based identification than you do.
Speaking from the position of a woman, again, it sucks to have sexist stereotypes forced upon you. It sucks even more to have people toss aside allegations of discrimination because “I’m obviously biased.” Sure, I might be, but I might also be right, too.
If I could be right here, couldn’t those other people — the ones we talked about dealing with issues of racism and sexism — be right too?
So. Let’s go back to our history.
The history of the United States, as often used by those of us who want to deploy history lessons like cautionary tales, often begins with the ‘founding fathers’ of the United States. Really, this means looking back at the meetings that led to the foundation of our government — the Continental Congress.
In the First Continental Congress, contrary to popular belief, there wasn’t a coherent version of what would someday become our great nation.
Citizens of different minds, conservatives and radicals, each made their cases for what action was needed. Conservatives like Joseph Galloway, John Dickinson, John Jay, and Edward Rutledge wanted to draft a set of common politics that would force Parliament to change its policies. Radicals like Patrick Henry, Roger Sherman, Samuel Adams, and John Adams wanted to draft an emphatic declaration of the rights claimed by the Colonies’ in the name of self governance.
According to our history, there were two primary things accomplished at the Continental Congress: first, the Congress agreed to an economic boycott of British trade and a petition to King George III to change the policies enacted to punish the Colonies. Second and perhaps more instructively, they also scheduled the second Continental Congress, during which they drafted and passed the Declaration of Independence, the first step to actually founding our government.
When people point to these undoubtedly important moments in United States history to evoke a sense of nationalism, they forget some things about those moments that feel important to acknowledge in our current communicative and political climate:
- There were no non-white people invited to construct, inform, or add their own perspectives to the Declaration of Independence or the Continental Congresses. In fact, most non-white folks were servants or slaves.
- There were no women invited to construct, inform, or add their own perspectives to the Declaration of Independence or the Continental Congresses. In fact, most women were servants or ‘placed on pedestals’ within the home.
- Generally speaking, all of the very white, affluent men that had a hand in shaping the Declaration of Independence shared a general cultural history, which means they had no way of understanding or protecting those people not invited to the Congress, whose perspectives were by definition not included in the drafting of the Declaration itself. In fact, most of US history was written in this same tradition.
The United States of America, as a country, has a proud history that likes to emphasize how much we have historically welcomed others to the table. Sure, these men came together to accomplish their own stated purposes, but they didn’t do anything to account for those that weren’t already invited.
Do you really think they imagined a world in which a country would have a black President? Where non-white folks weren’t just slaves and workers, but a world in which non-white could vote or own property? Where women could run entire major, multinational corporations or, indeed, run for President of the United States?
The answer is kinda simple: they couldn’t have. There’s no way. Their goal was to create a functional system of government that would protect the rights of all people against the governmental abuse of power, equally, which is why they chose the language that they did. They just didn’t predict that their words would be interpreted so literally.
In the last fifty years, the cultural speed limit for social change in the United States has accelerated with the advent and explosive, meteoric rise of social media networking. Its ability to simultaneously reshape and destroy the political landscape every four years is a dramatic force that needs to be more adequately understood and interrogated. It is because of this breakdown in communication that social change has increasingly come from the courts, whose job it is to mete out justice based on the equal merit protections of our Constitution.
But the major social landmarks? Marbury v. Madison? Miranda v. Arizona? Roe v. Wade? Brown v. Board of Education? Cooper v. Aaron? U.S. v. Nixon? Obergefell v. Hodges? All of these advances in human dignity came from the courts. The courts are our last safeguard, in which fact and truth win over opinion and hearsay. This is why the legislative bodies have become so dysfunctional: they are no longer interested in bridging common ground, they are interested in retaining political capital and momentum to be used as they find it expedient and beneficial to do so. Every cost is calculated against the risk of re-election which is a course of logic that will inevitably produce career politicians.
To those for whom this open letter is intended:
If the history of the United States demonstrates any cultural phenomenon is certain, it is that it is incumbent on all of us, as citizens, to speak, to share our voices, and to find common ground that protects each and every one of us. We cannot allow communication to break down, to refuse to listen, or to refuse to stand up and protect those who have less power, access, and opportunity than we do, for whatever reason.
This responsibility falls doubly on legislators: you are not Caesar. You are expected to responsibly exercise power on behalf of all of us and, if unwilling to do so, to step down and let someone else take up the mantle of public servant. Being an elected official was never intended to be a life term, yet so many of our political representatives have been rotating fixtures of the Washington political machine. We have Presidential term limits precisely to ensure that the balance of power is constantly shifting and changing hands. You are a part of that machine, an agent of advocacy that is supposed to aspire to protect the country as a whole, not just your own individual constituency. ‘Just my constituency’ is an approach that dangerously mirrors the way average social media users increasingly block out the opinions they don’t want to see or hear.
We are all citizens of the United States of America together, legislators included; your perspectives and opinions don’t matter than anyone else. You just happen to hold power over the rest of us and, by virtue of holding that power, a responsibility to use to to enact the best possible future for everyone, not just one that fits your own narrow world view.
With love and hope,
An American Citizen