Wednesday, June 6, 2007

On Online Petitions, Being a Time-Honored American Tradition

Paris Hilton has posted a blog entry on her Myspace account urging her fans to sign an online petition, begging Governor Arnold Scwarzenegger to pardon her from her 23-day jail sentence:

[Paris Hilton] provides hope for young people all over the U.S. and the world. She provides beauty and excitement to (most of) our otherwise mundane lives…

WE NEED YOUR SUPPORT to save our Paris from ending up at the Century Regional Detention Facility! Please sign to tell The Honorable Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of the State of California, to think about the welfare of this young woman who has made a mortal error and deserves a second chance like so many others in our great nation have been served with after a mistake they have made . If the late Former President Gerald Ford could find it in his heart to pardon the late Former President Richard Nixon after his mistake(s), we undeniably support Paris Hilton being pardoned for her honest mistake as well [emphasis added], and we hope and expect The Governor will understand and grant this unusual but important request in good faith to Ms. Paris Whitney Hilton.

This is a spectacular idea. Online petitions have played an important, if not central, role in American social and political activism. Take, for example, the following instances from throughout history:

  • In our nation’s formative early years, the Marbury v. Madison decision established the concept of judicial review, the ability of the court to determine a law’s constitutionality. Contrary to popular belief, the Supreme Court initially ruled in favor of Marbury, saying it did not have the constitutional jurisdiction to reverse acts of Congress. Secretary of State James Madison, however, protested. Because the Internet had not technically been invented yet, Madison employed the colonial equivalent, a town crier, to make the rounds of Washington, D.C., asking residents to sign a petition against this “display of government impotence” that would upset the check-and-balance system constructed two decades before and “institute a tyranny of the legislature.” The petition also referred to Marbury himself as “weak-kneed” and “effeminate,” and insinuated that he was the “lamentable product of the union betwixt a venerous strumpet and her lascivious paramour.” Remarkably, the crier was able to gather 67 signatures before being tarred and feathered by an angry mob. Ashamed and intimidated, the Supreme Court reversed its decision, clearing the way for left-wing activist judges to slowly chip away at our sacred right to pray in public schools for generations to come.

  • More recently, Joshua Smalls, an 11-year-old from White Plains, New York, was served what he described as a “totally gross and disgusting” helping of cream-chipped beef by his mother, Rebecca Smalls. Joshua patently refused to consume it, defying first his mother’s threats of not receiving dessert and then her vow to revoke his X-Box privileges for a month. Finally, in a burst of frustration, he was sent to his room, where he logged on to and wrote a hurried blog entry detailing his mother’s atrocity and urging his friends to flood her Hotmail account with messages of protest. Within 24 hours, Mrs. Smalls’ inbox became clogged with no less than 324 emails from outraged pre-teens, to the point where she was unable to send or receive any emails until she deleted them. History does not record what became of Joshua Smalls, but one can only assume that his mother folded against the awesome wrath of the online petition.

  • The Sixties, as we all know, were a time of great social upheaval, especially for black Americans. In the midst of the chaos, two leaders for the African-American community stepped forward – Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Unfortunately, the men advocated two very different ideologies: King was a proponent of strictly nonviolent protest, whereas X stood behind a policy of aggressive self-defense. Thus divided, the African-American community suffered from infighting and insufficient momentum – that is, until Grace Bedell, a concerned citizen and professor at UC Berkley, used one of the first BBS systems in existence to create the first modern online petition. She garnered an impressive 26 signatures, which, when forwarded to Dr. King and Mr. X, so moved the two men that they put their differences aside and fought together for significant civil rights legislation and economic opportunities. Without the Bedell’s online petition, it is doubtful that the United States would be the harmonious racial utopia it is today.

  • And so, we salute you, Paris Hilton, in your attempt to escape the unfair repercussions of your actions. Indeed, while today they are persecuting you, tomorrow it could be any one of us. Well, any one of us who has been pulled over for drinking and driving. Twice.

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