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Democracy

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Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died Feb. 13, 2016. With the presidential election 269 days away, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) and his caucus set a new precedent, refusing to hold confirmation hearings or a vote on then-President Barack Obama’s (D) nominee Merrick Garland because they believed the American people were mere months away from truly having a chance to weigh in on the decision.

This week Justice Anthony Kennedy, viewed by many as the center-right fulcrum of an otherwise politically balanced bench, announced he would retire. As a result, President Donald Trump (R), with two- to six-and-a-half more years left in the White House, will get his second bite at the Supreme Court apple, having already appointed Justice Neil Gorsuch last year.

If we are to set aside the hypocrisy of Senate Republicans pledging to plow forward with the nomination and confirmation process before the midterms, jus—-t 124 days from now, we don’t think it’s too much to ask for them to consider a few things as they begin the process.

First, can our current political climate handle the nomination and appointment of a partisan justice bent on say, being the deciding vote in overturning Roe v. Wade? Yes, it would score political points with the president’s Republican base and enflame liberals even more than they already are, which seems to be one of the few pillars guiding the right. Do Republicans in Congress truly believe they don’t have a role to play in restoring some shred of compromise and unity in our politics? Would nominating a hard-line pro-life justice this close to what was already likely to be possibly as heated a campaign season our country has ever seen (outside of 2016, of course) really do anything to advance our country’s discourse to a better place than we’re in now?

Further, beyond Roe v. Wade, are Republicans comfortable with the current discourse regarding the free press and the First Amendment? Will Trump be vetting his nominee about their stance on critical issues pertaining to his own legal situation, which includes probes into his personal attorney’s alleged pay-for-play White House access business structure and a special counsel investigation into Trump’s alleged campaign ties to the Russian government and its meddling in our election? Everyone involved is innocent until proven guilty, but if the president intends to impose a litmus test on his nominee for a question like, “Can the president of the United States legally pardon himself?” that should be a red flag to anyone who claims to believe in the rule of law.

We don’t feel it’s too much to ask for Republicans to consider a nominee that could serve as a unifier in as desperate a time as any for a little compromise, even assuming they’ve made up their mind on tearing up the McConnell Rule before the proverbial ink from 2016 is even dry. Both sides like to stake claims to a mythical moral high ground. Republicans, as they cheerlead things like tearing up the Affordable Care Act and labeling the free press as the enemy of the American people, could do more to stake an actual claim to that high ground than they have since Trump burst onto the scene with a nominee in the form of an olive branch.

Co-CEO of East Setauket-based investment firm connected to major money behind Trump administration

 

A large group of political protesters paraded along busy Route 25A in East Setauket March 24, aiming their outcry not just at the administration in Washington, D.C., but a reclusive hedge fund billionaire by the name of Robert Mercer residing in their own backyard.

Mercer, the co-CEO of an East Setauket-based investment firm and resident of Head of the Harbor, has been under the spotlight for being the money behind President Donald Trump’s (R) administration, maintaining a major influence on the White House’s agenda, including its strict immigration policies.

Mercer, a major backer of the far-right Breitbart News, reportedly contributed nearly $13.5 million to the Trump campaign and, along with his daughter Rebekah, played a part in securing the leadership positions of chief strategist Steve Bannon and campaign manager Kellyanne Conway.

Regarding Mercer as the administration’s puppeteer-in-chief, protesters assembled to bring public attention to the local family’s power in the White House and the influence “dark money” has had in America.

“I think we’ve reached a worrisome point in our history that a single individual can have the kind of influence that Robert Mercer has, simply because he has a huge amount of money,” Setauket resident John Robinson said. “I think he’s an extremely dangerous individual with worrisome views. He just wants government to not be around so people like him and companies like his can plunder to their heart’s content.”

The short march, made up of several protest groups including the North Country Peace Group, began at the CVS shopping center and landed at the bottom of the hill where Mercer’s Renaissance Technologies sits. Leading the march were local residents wearing paper cutout masks of Trump, Bannon and U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), each strung up like puppets and controlled by a resident in a grim reaper outfit, representing Mercer.

Equipped with signs reading “Mercer $ Bought Trump We Pay the Price” and “Resist Mercer,” Long Island residents stood in front of the investment firm’s office and participated in a mock debate with the faux-political figures. The topics ranged from Mercer’s denial of climate change to Zeldin’s stance on the now-pulled American Health Care Act.

Sue McMahon, a member of the grassroots coalition Building Bridges in Brookhaven, had only recently learned about Mercer’s heavy involvement in Trump’s presidency and his close proximity and participated in the march to expose him.

“I’m very concerned we have a person like this among us who holds the power of the Republican Party,” McMahon said.

She said she’s particularly troubled by the administration’s overwhelming ignorance of environmental issues, its emphasis on money and the extreme views of Breitbart News.

“This is not the America I grew up with, this is not what I want,”she said. “I’m not normally a protester, but I believe we all have to stand up now.”

Paul Hart, a Stony Brook resident, said he was there to support democracy.

The American people have lost representative government because campaign contributions are now controlled by the rich, he said, and it’s hard to think about the needs of constituents when they don’t contribute in a way that’s beneficial to a politician’s re-election.

“The average person has absolutely no voice in politics anymore,” Hart said. “Bbefore, we had a little bit, but now, we’re being swept aside.

One protester referred to Mercer as one small part of a larger picture, and expressed concern over a growing alt-right movement throughout the country that prefers an authoritarian government that runs like a business.

“I guess that’s what Trump is all about,” said Port Jefferson resident Jordan Helin. “But we’re seeing what the country looks like when it’s being run like a business, [and it’s scary].”

Myrna Gordon, a Port Jefferson resident and member, said her organization has held previous actions against Renaissance Technologies, and was among the first grassroots groups on Long island to take notice of how entrenched in the White House Mercer and his family are. According to her, Rebekah Mercer is in many ways more powerful than her father.

“We cannot take the focus off [Rebekah Mercer] right now, because she’s become a powerful force in this whole issue of money in politics, buying candidates, everything we see in our government,” she said.

Since Robert Mercer is local and lives in our community, she added, it’s time that we showed our strength and our voice regarding what this money is doing to our country.

Stock photo

By Michael Tessler

America at its finest has always been a series of contradictions. We are a democracy, but not directly. We are a republic, but not entirely. We are capitalists, but not wholly. We are free, but not always. America has never been an absolute anything and I think with good reason.

All one must do is look toward the grand and gleaming white rotunda of our Capitol Building, adorned with a bronze statue of Freedom, to see the irony of our union. Though an uncomfortable truth, the epicenter of freedom and democracy in the world was built by those who were not free. Slavery is a stain on our nation. Some would rather ignore its uncomfortable truths, refuse to acknowledge its lasting impacts, and remain blind to the errors of our past. Others choose to let its singularity define us.

In the modern era (and in most eras), there are those who comfortably hide behind our flag. They refuse to acknowledge its shortcomings, believing that somehow our imperfections make us weak and/or dilute the idea of America itself. Others have given up on the idea of our nation altogether and have subscribed to the self-deprecating belief that America is a sham, that our misdeeds are too plentiful to salvage our republic.

One question, in particular, uncomfortably encapsulates this whole concept and in a lot of ways the modern American conflict: Can George Washington still be considered a great man if he owned slaves?

This is an unsettling question for some. Personally, I have always viewed him as an almost God-like figure. Who against all odds led an army of ragtags to victory over the world’s greatest superpower? Who had the opportunity to rule for life and establish a monarchy but rather ensured the peaceful transition of power and secured the blessings of liberty for generations to come? Somewhere in the back of my mind I knew he owned slaves. That was a fact I wanted to ignore. More than anything I didn’t want to second guess the pureness of my personal hero, our nation’s first president, a man I had placed on a pedestal of great renown.

Yet, we are doing our country a disservice if we remain blind to uncomfortable truths: George Washington owned more slaves than any other American president — 318 slaves at the time of his death. For perspective, that is roughly the same population as the freshman, sophomore and junior classes of Port Jefferson High School combined.

“Everyone had slaves back then!” is an argument I’ve often heard. You don’t need to look any further than to John Adams or Alexander Hamilton to know there were mainstream abolitionist. Many recognized that slavery was a misdeed, a criminal act even. This fact is a source of great contention among Americans, but I think both sides are the missing the point.

The greatest accomplishment of our nation’s forefathers was their creation of a system of government that would allow future Americans to correct their sins. Using their model, we have successfully abolished slavery and Jim Crow laws, given women and African Americans the right to vote, landed a man on the moon, defeated the Third Reich, created the most professional and well-trained military, built great cities, and fostered the education of the world’s most renowned thinkers, inventors and dreamers.

Our Capitol Building, while built by slaves, is the very same building in which their freedom was finally granted. Progress isn’t always easy, and the work of it is never truly done. In a nation that abhors absolutes, it strikes me as a great misstep to allow absolutists to define us.

George Washington means many things to many people, his entire existence perhaps symbolic of the American story. After his death, he had granted his slaves their most basic right to freedom. After his death, the system of government he helped create would forever grant slaves their basic right to freedom.

Like many, President Washington feared that the abolition of slavery would rip our young country apart. Those fears were not ill founded, as our country did tear apart during the brutal American Civil War. We as individuals must come to our own conclusion, but to reduce our complex history to a series of absolutes strikes me as an injustice to history itself.

America’s genius was not crafted in a single summer day in Philadelphia. It was earned through trial and error, war and bloodshed, broken bloodied chains and crackled whips and the tireless debate and civil discourse of the American people.

We are a dynamic and ever-changing people. Our sins do not define us, but that does not absolve us of them either. We must face the repercussions of our actions as a collective. Abraham Lincoln fought the war George Washington could not, just as we today are forced to confront the conflicts our fathers and forefathers could not.

We did not want to inherit these struggles, no generation does, but how we choose to move forward is what truly makes us American. Our ability to embrace our imperfections and strive ever forward in spite of them, with the endless dream of achieving a more perfect union. Now that is America the Beautiful.

On Nov. 8, please honor our servicemen and women by casting your ballot. Feel free to share your thoughts with me at MJT@TBRNewspapers.com.

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