BY JAMIE MOSES
On December 23, 2016, Artvoice published a traditional end of year survey asking four simple questions:
1. What would you most like to happen in 2017?
2. What would you like to see go away in 2017?
3. Who would you like to see run for mayor of Buffalo in next year’s election?
4. Should the new $50 million Amtrak station be at Central Terminal or Canal Side?
Over 100 people who are well known in Buffalo were sent the survey and about 40 answered in time to make deadline. There were some thoughtful answers like bringing Uber to Buffalo, taking down the skyway, enhancing infrastructure, shifting to renewable energy, and a moratorium on demolishing pre-1960s buildings. What people most wanted to see go away were Trump, the Clintons and hate. There was also a jarring response from developer and school board member Carl Paladino saying what he’d like to see in 2017 is that Barak Obama would die of Mad Cow disease and Michelle Obama would move to Africa and live in a cave with a gorilla.
Wishing the president would die is shocking and the Michelle Obama remark, of course, ignited a firestorm over the “send ‘em back to Africa” suggestion long used by racists.
I published Paladino’s remarks along with those of the 40 other people who responded. Local, national and international news media immediately jumped on Paladino’s remarks and it became headline news everywhere. Several alternative weekly newspapers across the country immediately emailed Artvoice to congratulate the paper for having the courage to print such a controversial survey response. However, local social media immediately blew up with heated debate about my decision. One side applauded publishing Paladino’s remarks so people would know what he said. On the other side are people who are appalled Artvoice would print such “hate-speech.”
But as well-known civil liberties lawyer and writer Harvey Silvergate has said, “Scrutiny and debate are more effective ways of combating hate speech than censorship.”
Whether Carl Paladino’s words are encouraging and positive or vile and insulting has no effect on his first amendment right to say whatever he wants and no one has disputed that. They do dispute his right to remain on the School Board after spewing such hateful opinions. The troubling issue for many people regarding Artvoice is that while I too have a first amendment right to print whatever I want I’m under no legal obligation to print what Carl Paladino sent to me, therefore, it’s under my discretion whether to release Paladino’s comments or to censor them and hide them from the public.
It is my belief that censorship is an evil tool used to manipulate what we’re allowed to see and think and often seeks to suppress brilliant and controversial artists like Robert Maplethorpe, James Joyce, Allen Ginsberg, Vladimir Nabokov, William S. Burroughs, and so on. Those artists were banned because people with the power to ban them found their work offensive. Fortunately, the first amendment eventually prevailed and their work was made available. While there is certainly nothing beneficial or artistic about Carl Paladino’s Obama remarks I could not bring myself to selectively say people are allowed to see what Jim Heaney said but they are not allowed to see what Carl Paladino said because he will offend people.
In the 1950s, Howl publisher and City Lights Bookstore owner Lawrence Ferlinghetti was arrested and tried for printing homosexual obscenity. Many others were arrested in that era for being “un-American” because of their thoughts about communism. In the novel 1984, by George Orwell, the Thought Police are charged with uncovering and punishing “unapproved thoughts” as crimes, an “Orwellian” nightmare world of fear and submission to authority.
In one of his previous controversial and “politically incorrect” moments Paladino criticized Governor Andrew Cuomo for marching in New York City’s Gay Pride Parade and railed against “brainwashing our kids that it’s okay to be gay.” Paladino would no doubt remove gay artists Mapplethorpe and Ginsburg from our view. If it’s okay for me to remove Paladino’s words from public view then it’s okay for him to remove Allen Ginsburg’s poetry from libraries and bookstores. None of that is okay with me.
I also know that my role as publisher of an alternative weekly is not to ensure that everyone only reads what makes them happy and comfortable but to be an open window to view the reality of our community and the people in it, both the beautiful and the ugly. There’s very little room for censorship in my view unless it encourages violence or illegal acts.
As people in WNY know, Carl Paladino has made it a point to be “politically incorrect” and FOX News pundits like Sean Hannity and Mike Huckabee have gushed over Paladino’s willingness to be confrontational and outrageous. There’s no doubt in my mind that New Yorker Donald Trump used political underdog Carl Paladino’s upset win over entrenched establishment republicans in the New York gubernatorial primaries as the playbook model for his presidential bid. Unfortunately for Paladino, Trump is now distancing himself from an ally that has become politically toxic.
While Paladino’s remarks about the Obamas are shocking it is not shocking that he made them. This is Paladino being as politically incorrect as he can possibly be, his adopted combative way of waking people up to his political issues.
Unlike Paladino, I like the Obamas. They have been a model in civility and parenting that we should all be proud of. Were it not for republicans who, rather than work toward compromise, were obsessed with blocking every attempt by Obama to do things he deemed beneficial to the American people president Obama would probably have accomplished much more to ensure the health of our economic future and our environment. So personally, I was uncomfortable with Paladino’s remarks and found them offensive, but that doesn’t relieve me of my responsibility to publish the truth. The truth is 40 people answered our survey and I truthfully published what every one of them had to say without prejudice.
Unlike end-of-year surveys Artvoice has run in the past this one had an ulterior motive, one which had nothing to do with Carl Paladino. My motive was question number four and my goal was to gauge support for building the new Amtrak station at Central Terminal, which I wrote a cover story about two weeks earlier. Sadly, although the majority of responses did choose Central Terminal that topic got lost in the storm.
What happened in the days following Artvoice publishing Carl Paladino’s remarks in our survey is a microcosm of much of what’s wrong in this country today. The viral explosion of Paladino’s remarks across national news media was not about Carl Paladino it was about Donald Trump and that’s reflected in all the headlines. Every Trump associate, friend, business partner, campaign person or Trump administration named appointee is under the microscope. Any questionable appointment, like choosing EXXON-Mobile CEO Rex Tillerson as secretary of state, is news and receives moderate attention. But a Trump campaign manager wishing Obama dead and Michelle Obama living in a cave in Africa is the kind of sensational news that immediately goes viral. Comments on the Washington Post website aricle “Trump ‘friend’ and N.Y. campaign co-chair says he wants Obama dead of ‘mad cow disease’ in 2017” had almost 4,000 comments, while an article on the same site about eight Trump cabinet picks had only 835 comments.
Okay, we know Paladino’s remarks became “sensational news” for the nation but regardless of how repugnant Paladino’s comments may be the polarizing and vitriolic comments that are spewed from online users, particularly locally, are something to be ashamed of. Hate is a soul-destroying emotion and the hate I see online is saddening. Some examples:
“Carl Paladino, I hope your family dies before Christmas.”
“I will pray hard for Carl Paladino’s death ASAP”
“He should die, this crappy crooked POS should fucking die.”
It’s true that I found Paladino’s remarks about the Obamas offensive, but comments that Paladino “should fucking die” is the kind of response that only increases the hate and polarization we suffer. When I read, “I will pray for Carl Paladino’s death ASAP” I think more about the hate coming from that commenter than I do about Paladino. Is this genuine hate or someone who just wants to mindlessly be part of the lynch mob and fit in with the outraged social media crowd? I have a dear tech friend who calls these “virtue signals” by people who just want to fit in by signaling their righteous outrage over just about any controversial thing that’s trending at the moment. Paladino wished Obama would die of mad cow disease after having relations with a Hereford cow. That’s very unlikely to happen, which makes his death wish an illustration of his hate for Obama not something he reasonably expects might come true. “I will pray hard for Paladino’s death” on the other hand lacks the metaphorical buffer that ensures we are not talking about reality.
WHY IS CARL PALADINO ON THE SCHOOL BOARD?
A few years ago at Wegmans on Amherst St. a man was leaving the store with his 10-year-old daughter when he heard horrific screaming. He looked back and saw a man about 30 feet away wielding a steak knife in an overhand grip and repeatedly stabbing the screaming woman who he had pinned against a row of shopping carts. About a dozen people were circled around them watching with expressions of horror as blood spurted from multiple stab wounds, including her head and face. Several grown men were standing within inches of the attack but none of them made a move to help the woman. Thy seemed paralyzed by the shock of what they were witnessing. The man raced over and grabbed the arm gripping the knife and started pulling the man off. Immediately the people nearby jumped in and lent a hand and held the man to the floor until store security arrived. The man with the knife was sentenced to 18 years in prison for the attempted murder of his wife.
What’s the point of that story? The story is a visceral example that when something tragic is happening we can’t simply standby and watch with our mouths hanging dumbly open in disbelief. Someone has to take action. In Buffalo something tragic has been happening for years in our failing public schools and like stopping a stabbing or saving a drowning swimmer, hate him as you will, but Paladino joined the school board to take action in what he saw as a tragedy.
The school board is our mechanism for determining everything from LGBT bathroom policy to the quality of school administrators, what our children eat, who operates school buses, union contracts, building improvements and much more, yet very few people care enough to vote for who will be on the board making those decisions.
Everyone believes a good education is critical to ensuring a decent future for our children and critical to keeping young families living in the city and yet on average 95% of registered voters don’t bother to vote in School Board elections. That’s a staggering testament of Buffalo voters being uninvolved, as is the fact that Byron Brown was elected mayor by only10% of the population. Apparently the majority of people in Buffalo don’t care enough to exercise their right to vote to determine who’s elected and what happens in our schools or our city. I find it interesting that Carl Paladino was elected to the School Board with a mere 1,636 votes, and then over 23,000 people signed a petition for him to be removed from that board. Maybe if some of those people had bothered to vote Paladino would not be on the school board
That apathy is an ailment that plagues Buffalo, we don’t lead we just react to events that happen. We don’t vote but we do complain about who was elected. Preservationist Tim Tielman can cry out for years about a precious building deteriorating but no one pays attention until the wrecking ball is at the doorstep with an order to demolish. Then everyone jumps online and signs a petition.
THE PALADINO EPISODE SHOULD IGNITE DEEPER ANALYSIS OF THE SCHOOL BOARD
Before joining the board Carl Paladino had been railing for years against what he termed a dysfunctional school board, which at the time had a board majority of black women he labeled “the sisterhood.” That was probably the beginning of charges of racism leveled against him. He claimed the board was inept and corrupt and he mailed and emailed lengthy editorials to me and others explaining his reasons for saying that. To be honest, I didn’t read through most of what he sent because it was dense with school board governance issues that I didn’t understand. I do know that was the same board that allowed Ciminelli Construction to spend $1.4 billion dollars with no oversight whatsoever in spite of a contract that required a review of spending. They never did a review even once and now we know that $400 million is mysteriously unaccounted for and Ciminelli is refusing to say where it went. That was also the same school board that granted Ciminelli Construction every request it asked for that benefitted Ciminelli and hurt taxpayers. That was the same school board that hired superintendents James Harris, James Williams and Pam Brown, all complete disasters.
So rather than continue to write and rant Paladino got elected to the school board and engineered bringing on new members and reversed the majority. The Paladino majority accomplishments are something to be considered in any criticism of his tenure at the board:
• Graduation rates increased from 46% to 61%
• Nine schools moved off the state’s “failing” category and four moved onto the “good standing” category.
• Superintendent Cash Kriner was recruited and hired.
• The board approved an extended school day and smaller early elementary class sizes for the most at risk students.
• Launched an audit and civil complaint to recover hundreds of millions in excess spending by Ciminelli in the Schools Construction Project
• Created an educational program for English Language Learners for growing immigrant and refugee community.
* Restored physical education to every elementary school in the district.
(Apparently Carl Paladino was invited to write about the school board in this issue so let him explain the issues.)
The make up of school board changed again in 2016. Paladino has always been at odds with the Buffalo Teachers Federation and its union leader Phil Rumore and in the school board election of 2016 the BTF backed candidates were successful in knocking off James Sampson and Jay McCarthy, ending the Paladino majority.
So where are we now? Paladino has lost his majority, his comments in Artvoice have cemented his position as “unwanted person” and the school board has voted 6 to 2 to request the state to remove him from the board. Okay, so we know that we’re against racism, but what are we for? Do we still have a polarized school board? If Paladino resigns (unlikely) or is removed by the state will the protest groups evaporate into their accustomed apathy, or will they continue to engage in a discussion to improve Buffalo public schools? Will the 23,000 people who signed a petition to remove Carl Paladino show up to vote in the next school board election or is their interest only momentarily engaged when they’re outraged about something? I hope for sake of the 34,000 children in Buffalo public school that going forward people actually do more than pay lip service to improving our schools.