Commentary

Free Speech in the Trump Era

Nov 21, 2016

It was an interesting weekend for free speech.

VP-elect and occasional theater-goer Mike Pence got a mixed review on Friday after he was booed by some audience members who spotted him slipping into his seat at Hamilton. After the performance, Brandon Dixon, who plays Aaron Burr, thanked Pence for attending and read a statement from the cast. It was a theatrical reflection of what many people are feeling:

"We, sir -- we are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights. We truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us."

The President-elect, upon hearing of the affront, took to Twitter several times to demand an apology.

“The theater must always be a safe and special place,” he said in one tweet. “The cast and producers of Hamilton, which I hear is highly overrated, should immediately apologize to Mike Pence for their terrible behavior,” he said in another.

On Sunday, Trump took to Twitter again, this time to complain about SNL’s “biased” show. That prompted his impersonator, Alec Baldwin, to fire back with a suggestion to retrain Americans to create jobs. It was downhill from there.

To his credit, Pence said he wasn’t offended by the Hamilton reception. “When we arrived we heard a few boos, and we heard some cheers," he told Fox News Sunday. "I nudged my kids and reminded them that is what freedom sounds like."

Pence has heard the sound of freedom before. Like last April, for example, when he was heckled while throwing out the first pitch at the Indianapolis Indians’ home opener. "A lot of people were booing him," Lindsay Watson helpfully told the Indiana Star, sounding one part reporter, one part Midwestern nice. "There were a few people cheering but not many. More boos than cheers."

More boos than cheers is how democracy often goes; at best, it’s a messy and imperfect way to do business. But the freedoms of assembly and speech, among others, are pretty central to its success. Anything that dampens those fundamental rights – to help the public parse the extraordinary conflicts of interest facing the Trump administration, for example - should be deeply alarming.

Hamilton, Broadway’s breakout hit and tribute to diversity, grosses about $2 million a week in ticket sales. Chances are the #BoycottHamilton “movement” which erupted after the booing died down will have little to no impact on their momentum. Donald Trump's demand for "equal time" on SNL probably won't hurt the franchise or Alec Baldwin much either. But, free speech is always a risk, particularly for anyone in the for-profit sector. Speaking truth to power means speaking directly to yourselves, and your own bottom line. Always a messy bit of business, but these days, an increasingly necessary one. The trick is not to throw away your shot.

With more business leaders taking the unusual step of addressing the subject of race and inclusion in both public and private ways, I'm hoping for more cheers than boos in 2017.

On Point

The DAPL protests erupt into violence overnight

Although information remains spotty, reports on social media, including a Facebook live report by Kevin Gilbertt and amplified by Senator Bernie Sanders, seem to show Dakota Access pipeline protestors trapped overnight on a bridge, pelted by tear gas and rubber bullets, and possibly water cannons, despite freezing temperatures. Officials on scene say that the overnight clash was an attempt to disperse aggressive activists.

Fortune

Major League Baseball dismisses firm hired to recruit diverse executives

M.L.B. retained executive search group Korn Ferry in 2015 to help them find and promote diversity candidates for management jobs. But Korn Ferry also took on work on behalf of individual teams, often promoting non-minority candidates for the same jobs, a clear conflict of interest, says the organization. M.L.B. is now using an internal search effort known as The Pipeline Program.

New York Times

Attorney General pick Jeff Sessions' record on civil rights and race is troubling

It’s going to be a tough Senate confirmation process, experts predict, as the President-elect’s pick for attorney general has been accused of making inflammatory comments on race in the past, and of intimidating black voters during the Reagan administration. Sessions has publicly said these allegations have been “heartbreaking” to him. Civil rights advocates worry that if confirmed, he will roll back much of the progress of the Obama administration - for starters, by discontinuing civil rights investigations of police departments.

Fortune

Steve Bannon: I’m not a white nationalist

He’s just a nationalist, he says, but one that has the most powerful position in the new Trump administration: Providing the vision, the strategy, and the ideological meat on the bones. The Hollywood Reporter’s Michael Wolff is one of the few reporters who has been allowed near him, and he offers a breathless mini-profile of the guy with a wildly diverse resume and bank account fueled by cash from Seinfeld royalties. "Darkness is good," says Bannon."Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That's power.”

Hollywood Reporter

Programmers publicly confess unethical behavior, coercion

A recent essay written by programmer Bill Sourour called “Code I’m Still Ashamed Of,” has started a serious conversation within the developer community about ethics and accountability within their profession. Sourour said he was asked to skirt advertising laws while building a website to sell a drug that turned out to have deadly side effects. But the bigger conversation is about the software that’s increasingly powering everything - cars, planes, news, manufacturing, health care and criminal justice decisions. “We are killing people," says one programmer. "We did not get into this business to kill people. And this is only getting worse."

Business Insider

A new public-private partnership aims to help black and Latinx talent succeed in the Boston tech industry

The New England Venture Capital Association (NEVCA) has announced a new program that will target “non-traditional schools” - like historically black colleges and junior colleges - looking to match promising students with the local tech/start-up community. The program called Hack.Diversity, plans to provide end-to-end services helping to smooth the way for both the candidates and the firms that hire them.  The cofounders are Jeff Bussgang of Flybridge Capital Partners and Harvard Business School. “Organized in the right fashion, we have all the resources right here to address this market failure and social justice issue,” says Bussgang.

NEVCA

The Woke Leader

What is systemic racism?

Racism. Is it really a thing? These days, it may be hard to sort that out. The Center for Racial Justice Innovation has an eight-part video series that helps explain how racism is a part of everyday life, in areas like employment, housing policy, incarceration, infant mortality and the like. They’re short, smart, well-researched and highly shareable; the narrator is Jay Smooth, one of my favorite radio personalities and commentators.

RaceForward

White people, struggling with lost status, lose their humanity as well

There are few people who bring the gravitas and intellectual heft to conversations about race than Nobel Prize-winning novelist, Toni Morrison. Her recent New Yorker piece is an unflinching examination of the history of “whiteness;” specifically the American need, as painful and hidden as it may be, to make whiteness the only acceptable marker of American identity. She speaks with compassion about people who know better, but “who are prepared to abandon their humanity out of fear of black men and women, [which] suggests the true horror of lost status.”

The New Yorker

What soldiers eat around the world

Here is a strangely wonderful collection of “unboxing” videos, but instead of technology, they’re of MRE’s – Meal(s), Ready-To-Eat –  the combat rations given to soldiers. The videos were created  by a YouTuber called “KiwiDude,” who procured, opened and then tasted the field chow given to soldiers from countries all over the world. On the one hand, learning what passes as filling comfort food for different soldiers is an interesting exercise. But at 20 minutes plus per video, it’s also a deeply nerdy project. Atlas Obscura offers a list of the best of the bunch.

Atlas Obscura

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