Check our weekly content, provided by our wonderful mentorees! In preparation for each event, our contributors will be providing multimedia and information that they consider relevant to the issue at hand.
Think you've got what it takes to be our next contributor? Reach out to the Union at firstname.lastname@example.org
Monday, April 10: Free Speech and Current Events
Hannah Mitlak reflects on social media’s involvement in current freedom of speech questions.
Shortly after Donald Trump’s election the media was quick to label American society as “post-fact.” This label was seemingly supported with the emergence of rhetoric on fake news and alternative facts. Increasingly it seems that anyone with a platform (and today that’s anyone with an iPhone and a social media account) has the ability to have their truth-free free speech reach millions of witless citizens. Thomas Jefferson once said, “Where the press is free and every man able to read, all if safe.” Jefferson didn’t have a Facebook.
It turns out social media in particular may not be in the business of providing factual information to its users. By now we all know about the Facebook pages sprouting Donald Trump support out of the Balkans. But the problem is more complex than foreign born fallacies. The structure of Facebook’s content review favors newsmakers over regular viewers. Not only is defining what truly is a newsource more and more difficult, but the ubiquitous nature of sites like Facebook and Twitter mean that social media has become a defacto way to get news. Rather than allowing the media to find the truth and keep reality in check as the Founding Fathers had envisioned, it is now upon us all to sort out fact from fake news.
Kris Ahn considers freedom of speech’s relevance on Columbia’s own campus.
This week, CPU is hosting a debate on the lengths and limitations of free speech in our world. The topic is especially relevant to our campus; Columbia University College Republicans decided to cancel Milo Yiannopoulos’ event earlier this semester, and many students joined to protest Charles Murray’s recent lecture, “Are Elites to Blame for the Rise of Donald Trump” on campus. As a reminder of the controversy surrounding Murray’s speech, here is an open letter from Columbia and Barnard faculty, urging students to allow Murray to speak without interruption (http://columbiaspectator.com/opinion/2017/03/21/an-open-letter-about-charles-murray-and-his-right-to-speak-on-campus/) and here is an op-ed from the Columbia University Socialists, supporting changing the lecture to a debate format where Murray’s ideas could be “challenged, not accepted” (http://columbiaspectator.com/opinion/2017/03/22/charles-murrays-ideas-should-be-challenged-not-accepted/). The open letter from faculty mentions Murray’s event at Middlebury college, detailed by this article in the Atlantic (https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/03/middlebury-free-speech-violence/518667). The free speech is contentious, and with good reason. Speakers like Murray and Yiannopoulous often hold ideals that are clearly and openly racist and sexist; it’s hard to want to give people like these a platform to speak at your university. This Vox article (http://www.vox.com/the-big-idea/2016/12/13/13931524/free-speech-pen-america-campus-censorship) puts up a strong argument for allowing these discussions to take place, but as the Socialists say in their op-ed, it is important to consider the context and format these events take. Where does the balance between students’ individual feeling of safety and freedom of speech fall? The debate is sure to express many voices on the issue, hope to see you all there!
Rosie Moss reviews a recent panel discussion about voter turnout.
Last week I attended a panel hosted by The Gotham Center for New York City History called “Fixing Elections: The Politics of Electoral Reform in NYC, Then and Now.” The purpose of this panel was to learn about why voter turnout in NYC has decreased so significantly over the past few decades and, more importantly, what can be done to increase it.
Gerald Benjamin, the former Director of the Center for New York State and Local Government Studies, proposed the idea that the low voter turnout in New York is a result of the structural barriers to voting determined by the New York State Constitution. As a result, he believes that the best solution is to hold a constitutional referendum in order to make the necessary changes to the NYS Constitution that would reform the electoral administration in order to reduce the barriers associated with voting. Alternatively, Susan Lerner, the Executive Director of Common Cause New York, proposed a variety of electoral reforms that she believes would increase voter turnout significantly. These reforms include implementing early voting in New York, which would make voting more convenient, and providing more opportunities for people to register to vote, such as when they get their licenses.
In addition, DeNora Getachew, the New York Executive Director of Generation Citizen, advocates for integrating civic education into the general education curriculums of high schools across the U.S in order to motivate young people to become more politically active and, particularly, to vote. Lastly, Rob Richie, Executive Director of FairVote, suggested changing the electoral system of local elections in New York from a majoritarian system to a proportional representation system. He believes that this change would motivate people to vote, as it would likely give small parties and minority groups greater representation in local government.
Though the four panelists varied greatly in their approaches to improving voter turnout, all had compelling arguments for why their proposed reforms would have far-reaching effects. Everyone agreed that finding a way to increase voter turnout in New York should be a priority.
Sam Ackerman recommends articles to consolidate an understanding of the United States’ recent attack on a Syrian air base.
Over the past week, the United States took the surprising action of directly attacking a Syrian air base controlled by the Assad regime. Interestingly, at that very air base was a contingent of Russian soldiers, although none were harmed by the strike. This action has led to vehement condemnations from the Russian government, and in particular Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (see article: https://www.theatlantic.com/news/archive/2017/04/global-reaction-syria-strike/522264/ ). However, what one might have trouble imaging is why the Russians ally with Assad in the first place. The answer is not an ideological one and in fact dates back to Cold War posturing. The following article provides a solid explanation of this relationship: http://www.economist.com/blogs/economist-explains/2015/09/economist-explains-22. After reading this article, one might consider that in the long-term the costs of backing Assad for Russia might prove too great to justify the alliance. At any rate, understanding the incentives of the Russians in Syria is key to understanding the dynamics of the Syrian Civil War at large.