Jack Petocz, who will be a senior at Flagler Palm Coast High School next fall, won first place in Florida Volusia/Flagler Chapter’s first annual ACLU’s Cary Ragsdale Future Voter’s Essay Contest. The prize features a $500 prize underwritten by FlaglerLive and the publication of the trial here.
FlaglerLive was not involved in judging the essays or crafting the question posed: “Is our democracy in danger?” If so, what is the biggest threat? What should we do about it?”
Gabriela Gongora Rosales of Seminole High School won second place (and $250) and Jessica Roman of Matanzas High School won third place (and $100).
Petocz, who has been a FlaglerLive contributor, was suspended for a few days this year after leading a march at FPC to protest the so-called Don’t Say Gay law, which came into effect July 1, which bans teachers lower classes. to address or engage in discussions about gender identity. Petocz’s suspension was followed by his banning from school club leadership roles. This was not directly the result of his role in the march, which had been organized with the school administration, but his defiance of an order not to distribute pride flags during the march. Earlier this year, following his opposition to the school book ban, he was later featured in a front-page story in The New York Times and numerous other print and television outlets. In 2020, he was censured in a public school board meeting by Janet McDonald, then board chair.
His winning essay, slightly edited for style, follows.
By Jack Petocz
On January 6, 2021, the United States would experience what many had conceived to be the unthinkable. Fueled by reams of misinformation and the instigation of a tyrannical head of state, the rioters stormed Congress in what would become a violent attempted insurrection. I remember sitting in my pre-calculus class when I received the first notification on Twitter that the police barriers had been breached. As I clicked through the CNN bulletin, I was increasingly horrified by the images released by the reps I followed.
Since the founding of our nation, the United States has primarily remained a beacon of democracy and individual freedoms around the world. Integral freedoms such as speech, religion and peaceful assembly are granted to citizens by our Constitution. How did our country move away from this initial vision?
As the cold night swept across Washington, peace and security were slowly restored to the District of Columbia. However, amid the broken glass, a dangerous precedent has been set. The fragility of our experience of government has been revealed to the world. Two weeks later, the inaugural process resumed and a new administration was sworn in. But the attacks on our nation were just beginning.
Before delving into the intricacies of the threats that jeopardize our nation, I think it’s important to note our nation’s past limitations and failures. The United States is not a direct democracy. Representatives are chosen to make decisions and pursue legislation on behalf of constituents. Moreover, our nation has ignored the tenets of our founding documents on numerous occasions since the 18th century. For example, perpetuating discrimination and denying freedoms and representation on the basis of gender and race, or limiting these rights in times of war.
A clear and present danger to the United States today is the rapid spread and adoption of misinformation. This is evident in the events of January, as 147 Republican lawmakers in the House and Senate did not accept the results of an election. Armed with powerful arguments of widespread fraud, Donald Trump has mobilized and distorted the beliefs of millions through this deception. The administration has sought to stay in power by peddling debunked conspiracy theories and heckling anyone who disputes those mistakes as merely complicit in them. The attempted insurrection is representative of the effect such rhetoric can have, inciting supporters to violence and undermining our electoral processes.
With the development and use of social media, misleading claims have only increased. In an instant, blurbs containing such propaganda can be sent and delivered to the 4.62 billion using social media platforms today (223 million of them in the United States).
Disinformation that undermines national security is not limited to elections. Over the past two years, the Covid pandemic has been fertile ground for such motives. To combat the progression and significant spread of the disease, federal and state governments have issued necessary mandates and restrictions. Quickly, misrepresentations downplaying or denying the seriousness of the virus and the effectiveness of masks have become increasingly prevalent, undermining government messaging and causing figureheads to adopt biased or false narratives for political gain.
Countless lives have been lost due to this amplification of misinformation. Social media companies have tried to control these claims by fact-checking or disabling accounts peddling false claims. It is of course difficult to manage and guarantee the reliability of all the information displayed in an open society.
The current re-emergence of state-led censorship has become relevant, especially locally, undermining our state and directly challenging our founding principles. In Florida and several other states, Republican-led legislatures and governors have recently adopted a principle of minimizing the experiences and information of minority populations, specifically targeting LGBTQ+ and racial issues through legislation and harmful online rhetoric.
These censorship attempts have largely focused on the education sector. Fringe parenting groups, such as Moms for Liberty in Florida, have launched a campaign to ban “objectionable” school materials, including unattributed library books, which often highlight marginalized groups. Locally in Flagler County, the organization assisted in the difficult and eventual banning of the book, Not all boys are blue. This critically acclaimed memoir details personal anecdotes of George M. Johnson, an award-winning queer author who grew up in New Jersey. This book provides a critical portrayal of struggling gay students within our school system. Along with book censorship, lawmakers have passed legislation mandating educational gags, like the damaging “Don’t Say Gay” bill signed into Florida law, which goes into effect July 1.
Thus, attacking educational institutions across the United States compromises the security of the country’s future. Education is the most important economic asset for upward mobility. This ensures that future generations are ready to fight and lead on issues that are sure to challenge America. By imposing curricular restrictions and policing lesson plans, legislators encourage indoctrination and a relatively limited worldview. Additionally, the rhetoric of some politicians has led to a lack of support for public education and calls for the defunding of these institutions. If this monetary assistance is further reduced or diverted, as it continues to be through school vouchers to private schools and charter schools, millions of students in struggling communities will be impacted by a lack of adequate schooling.
Finally, the influence of corporate and wealthy elite interests contributes to threats to our democracy. Rather than representing voters, elected officials have become increasingly beholden to policy decisions based on corporate and corporate lobbying. Entities, including so-called untraceable black money companies, opening the door to foreign money, are giving campaign funds massively to influence the behavior of recipients in congress and prevent certain regulatory restrictions (whether on firearms fire, pollution, worker safety, employment safety, health care or many other consumer protection initiatives). Those in positions of authority often work for their own benefit or that of their wealthiest campaign donors. The majority of members of the 116th Congress are millionaires despite an annual salary of $174,000.
Due to the influence of black money on the government, necessary reforms in various sectors are ignored. We are failing to take adequate action on pressing issues such as climate change, health care and gun safety due to the influence of fossil fuel or pharmaceutical industry conglomerates and the NRA. How will our country move forward amid this endemic dishonesty? We must make immediate reforms to slow down the brazenness of very few economic interests that influence Washington by tightening campaign finance laws. Congressional disloyalty – the selling out of legislators to the highest bidders – will lead to the downfall of our state if left unaddressed.
Younger generations in unprecedented numbers are standing together to fight these dangerous ideologies and disinformation campaigns that are now undermining the solidity of the United States. Together, we will confront wrongdoing and fight corruption and discrimination. John F. Kennedy once said, “Conformity is the jailer of freedom and the enemy of growth. We will not strengthen and ensure the prosperous growth of our democratic state by complying. Together we will not conform.
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