Jack Petocz, who will be a senior at Flagler Palm Coast High School next fall, won First Place in the ACLU of Florida Volusia/Flagler Chapter’s first Annual “Cary Ragsdale Future Voter’s Essay Contest.” The award carries a $500 prize underwritten by FlaglerLive, and publication of the essay here.
FlaglerLive was not involved in the judging of the essays or in devising the question posed: “Is our democracy at risk? If so, what is the greatest 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, going into effect July 1, that forbids teachers in lower grades from broaching or engaging in discussions about gender identity. Petocz’s suspension was followed by his getting banned from leadership roles in school clubs. It was not directly the result of his role in the march, which had been arranged with school administration, but his defiance of an order not to distribute pride flags during the march. Earlier this year, following his opposition to school book bans, he was subsequently featured in a Page One article in The New York Times and on numerous other print and television media. In 2020 he was censored in an open School Board meeting by then-Board Chair Janet McDonald.
His winning essay, lightly edited for style, follows.
By Jack Petocz
On January 6th, 2021, the United States would experience what many had conceived as the unthinkable. Fueled by reams of misinformation and instigation from a tyrannicalesque head of state, rioters stormed Congress in what would become a violent attempted insurrection. I remember sitting in my pre-calculus class when I received the first Twitter notification that the police barriers had been breached. Clicking on the bulletin from CNN, I became increasingly horrified by images disseminated by representatives I followed.
Since our nation’s founding, the United States has primarily remained a beacon of democracy and personal freedoms to the world. Integral liberties such as speech, religion and peaceable assembly are endowed upon citizens through our Constitution. How did our country stray so far from this initial vision?
As the cold night swept over Washington, peace and security were slowly restored in the District of Columbia. However, amidst the broken glass, a dangerous precedent was set. The fragility of our experiment in government was revealed to the world. Two weeks later, the inaugural process resumed and a new administration was sworn in. But the attacks on our nation had just begun.
Prior to delving into the intricacies of the threats that imperil our nation, I feel it is important to note the limitations and previous failures of our nation. The United States is not a direct democracy. Representatives are chosen to make decisions and pursue legislation on behalf of constituents. In addition, our nation has ignored the principles of our founding documents on numerous occasions since the 18th century. For example, perpetuating discrimination and refusing to grant liberties and representation on the basis of sex and race, or the limiting of such rights during wartimes.
Today, a clear and present danger to the United States is the rapid dissemination and embrace of disinformation. This is evident in the events of January, as 147 Republican lawmakers in the House and Senate failed to accept the results of an election. Armed with powerful talking points of widespread fraud, Donald Trump mobilized and skewed the beliefs of millions via this deception. The administration sought to remain in power by peddling disproven conspiracy theories and heckling anyone challenging such fallacies as simply complicit in them. The attempted insurrection is representative of the effect such rhetoric can have, misguiding supporters to violence and undermining our election processes.
With the development and usage of social media, deceitful claims have only been amplified. In an instant, blurbs containing such propaganda can be sent out and provided to the 4.62 billion utilizing social media platforms today (223 million of them in the United States).
Disinformation undermining the security of the nation isn’t 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 issued mandates and necessary restrictions. Rapidly, false claims downplaying or denying the severity of the virus and efficacy of masks became increasingly prevalent, undermining government messages and leading figureheads to adopt biased or false narratives for political gain.
An incalculable number of lives were lost due to this amplification of misinformation. Social media companies have attempted to control such claims through fact-checking or by disabling accounts peddling false claims. It is difficult, of course, to manage and ensure reliability of all information posted in an open society.
The current reemergence of state-led censorship has become relevant, particularly 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 experiences and information of minority populations, specifically targeting LGBTQ+ and race issues via legislation and damaging online rhetoric.
These censorship attempts have largely been focused on the educational sector. Parental fringe groups–such as Moms for Liberty in Florida–have begun a campaign to ban “objectionable” curriculum materials, including unassigned library books, that often highlight marginalized groups. Locally, in Flagler County, the organization contributed to the challenging and eventual banning of the book, All Boys Aren’t Blue. This critically-acclaimed memoir details personal anecdotes from George M. Johnson, an award-winning queer author who grew up in New Jersey. This book provides critical representation for struggling queer students within our school system. In conjunction with the censorship of books, lawmakers have pursued legislation imposing educational gag-orders, such as the damaging “Don’t Say Gay” bill signed into Florida law, and that goes into effect July 1.
Thus attacking education institutions throughout the United States undermines the security of the country’s future. Education is the single most important economic asset for upward mobility. It ensures future generations are ready to fight and lead on issues that will certainly challenge America. By placing restrictions on curricula and policing lesson plans, legislators are promoting indoctrination and a relatively limited world view. In addition, rhetoric by certain politicians has led to a lack of support for public education and calls for defunding such institutions. If this monetary aid is further reduced or diverted, as it continues to be by school vouchers to private schools and by charter schools, millions of students in struggling communities will be impacted by a lack of adequate schooling.
Lastly, the influence of corporate interests and the wealthy elite are contributing to threats against our democracy. Rather than representing constituents, elected officials have become increasingly beholden to policy decisions based upon lobbying firms and businesses. Entities, including so-called dark-money concerns that cannot be traced, opening the door to foreign cash, donate masses to campaign funds to influence recipients’ behavior in congress and prevent certain regulatory restrictions (whether on guns, pollution, worker safety, job security, health care or numerous other consumer-protection initiatives). Those in positions of authority are often working for their own self-interest or that of their richest campaign donors. The majority of the members of the 116th Congress are millionaires despite a yearly salary of $174,000.
Due to the influence of dark money in government, necessary reforms in a variety of sectors are ignored. We fail to make adequate measures in regards to pressing issues such as climate change, health care and gun safety due to the influence of conglomerates in the fossil fuel or pharmaceutical industry, and the NRA. How is our country going to progress amidst this rampant dishonesty? We need to make immediate reforms to slow the brazenness of very few economic interests influencing Washington by re-strengthening campaign finance laws. Congressional disloyalty–the selling of lawmakers to the highest bidders–will lead to the downfall of our state if not addressed.
Younger generations in unprecedented numbers are standing in solidarity with one another to fight these ideologies and dangerous disinformation campaigns now compromising the soundness of the United States. Together, we will confront the wrongdoings and challenge 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 conforming. Together, we will not conform.
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