There aren’t many people for whom I’ll cheerfully take a bullet. One of them is my friend Tim.
He’s among the smartest folks I know. He has really good instincts. His opinions matter to me – a lot.
The following note from Tim thus caught my attention:
“I’m happy to receive emails about points of view. But once the subject of politics gets involved, I get uncomfortable. Sorry; and I hope you receive that in the spirit of honesty and friendship that I mean to convey.”
Tim is referring to my recent article about net neutrality – also known as the “open Internet”. There I had pointed out that
✦ on November 8, we (the American electorate) chose a new commander-in-chief who has promised to abolish net neutrality; and
✦ this stated intention represents a reversal of current executive-branch policy.
I also discussed the meaning of net neutrality and shared my concerns about its impact on the future of web publishing.
Just to be clear: I detest “the subject of politics” as every bit as much as Tim does. I bend over backward to avoid writing about it. For me, however, there’s a crucial distinction: Politics is one thing; government policy is another. Entwined though these may be, they aren’t the same.
Before discussing how this affects net neutrality, here’s some context:
Tim and I both practice a religion (the Baha’I Faith) that stays far away from partisan politics. It enjoins its members to do the same. That’s an obligation I take seriously. Not only because it is an obligation, but because I see and support the very good reasons for such avoidance.
I therefore shun politics (but not always policy) like the plague. Among other things, this means:
✦ I don’t run for elective office.
✦ I don’t endorse, or campaign for, candidates for elective office (although like other Baha’is I cast informed votes and often hold strong opinions).
✦ I don’t join political parties.
✦ I don’t identify with political “movements” that would put me in any ideological box. (The left, the right, and the center would all kick me out, since I flunk their standard litmus tests.)
✦ I don’t flaunt my subjective feelings about political figures, even when (or rather, especially when) I have such feelings. (For example, I don’t characterize one candidate as good and another as bad, one as truthful and another as deceitful, etc.)
What I am, however, is a journalist. During my long-ago newspaper days, I routinely interacted with, and reported on, the sayings and doings of government officials. I also chronicled the actions of the voting public that chooses among – and sometimes swaps out – those officials.
My hands-off attitude toward politics never hindered me in this work. On the contrary, it was always among my best assets. It gave me credibility both among readers and their leaders whom I cultivated as sources. I like to think it helped my reputation for fairness, impartiality, and a passion for truth.
It’s now been decades since I worked for any newspaper. As an independent publisher, however, I still consider myself a journalist, striving to uphold the profession’s high principles.
Among these is my responsibility to separate fact from opinion (especially my own opinion). It’s one thing to report objective facts. It’s quite another to editorialize about those facts. I do both. Sometimes I do both in the same article. But I always try to draw a sharp line between facts and my personal feelings, and between politics and policy.
Perhaps most important, I rely on readers to keep in mind these same distinctions.
That’s what I did in my net neutrality essay. At least, that’s how it looks to me, rereading it. Feelings aside, my report of what actually happened on November 8 was a simple statement of fact, verifiable by anyone: We did choose a new President that day, one whose Internet policy does differ sharply from that of his predecessor. Feelings don’t change facts.
This particular fact was also, in my view, essential to my article. Could I have discussed net neutrality in the abstract, without mentioning the recent election? Possibly. But then my fears for the Internet would have seemed crazy to any reader who didn’t know how and why its policy outlook had suddenly changed.
My impression is that most readers didn’t, in fact, know the candidate’s policy toward net neutrality. It wasn’t a campaign issue. Had I neglected to mention the reason for my hand-wringing, any reader who did know could fairly have suspected me of backhanded political sarcasm. Would that have been better than simply restating the candidate’s on-the-record policy position?
I don’t think so.
Which brings us to the larger context:
Many of the issues about which I care most deeply have far-reaching political fallout. No one knows better than I do how hard this makes it to write about them, while steering clear of partisan warfare. Lines blur! However nimbly I tiptoe, they may, at times, trip me up. Most of these topics are even more blurred (and far more gut-wrenching) than net neutrality. For example:
✦ I write about science and technology. This includes things like health care and climate change. If a government official says or does something alarming, I may well feel obliged to report that, alongside the scientific consensus. My own reflections? Those too – though I’ll separate them, as best I can, from the raw facts.
✦ I write about interfaith discourse. This includes the conversation between Christianity and Islam, between the West and the Middle East, and other currently tense encounters currently in the political spotlight.
✦ I write about human rights issues, including tragedies like the Syrian refugee crisis. This may at times require talking about government policies, actual and proposed – and how and by whom these are implemented.
✦ I write about race relations. Too often these are matters of life and death – sometimes for our black citizens, sometimes for the police with whom they interact.
✦ I write about gender equality issues. This may include the transgender-bathroom hoopla, rape culture, sexual assault, reproductive rights, and Lord knows what other hot-button stuff.
✦ I write about words and language. Sometimes simple words like “so”, along with their use and mostly-harmless misuse. Sometimes emotionally charged words like “Islam” for which misuse can threaten world security. (There’s that interfaith thing again.)
Are these topics uncomfortable? Yes, sometimes, and they all are topics about which reasonable folks can and do differ. That doesn’t make them inherently “political”. Not even when circumstances force me to mention their connection with some current political controversy.
Nor, in writing about them, do I try to make anyone uneasy. What I want is for us all to reach out, to start talking, and to find creative ways past our differences.
Lest we forget, the US Baha’i community has a national Office of External Affairs that works directly with public officials on issues of shared concern. Like similar Baha’i agencies throughout the planet, it also seeks protection for Baha’is who are, in many lands, persecuted. The same may be said of the Baha’i International Community office at the United Nations.
Trying to remain above the political fray doesn’t mean being oblivious to human needs. If anything, it makes us more sensitive to such needs and better able to do something about them.
It does require balance, along with judgments that any two Baha’is might well call differently. Did I err in writing as I did about net neutrality? Perhaps – though I’m not convinced.
What I know for sure is that it wasn’t for lack of attention to my proper boundaries. These, I struggle with! Anything you see in my reporting is the result of that struggle.
Should you ever worry that I’ve stepped over some line, please tap me on the shoulder. That’s what Tim did, with (as he says) honesty and friendship.
Thanks, Tim! Here’s hoping this helped. If it didn’t, then please be patient while we figure this thing out!