Historian R. R. Palmer, in his book about the French Revolutionary Committee of Public Safety, Twelve Who Ruled, wrote the following account of the strangely inspirational quality of a legislator at that time:
It is difficult to imagine the effect produced in 1793 by the phrase ‘Representatives of the People.’ Neither word today sends a thrill through anybody’s spine. Both words were then alive with the emotions of a new belief. A Representative of the People, for Frenchmen of the First Republic, was the most august being that could exist on earth.
The representatives embodied the majesty of the nation, and traveled in the reflected brilliance of its glory, like the proconsuls of Rome or the satraps of ancient Persia. Members of the Convention, they were the immediate wielders of sovereignty, the individual agents of the people’s might. They stood above all existing laws and authorities, for the source of law flowed through them, a mysterious current that gave their actions the attribute of justice. Plain enough men for the most part, not demanding or wanting to be fawned on, they nevertheless often found that local Jacobins received them with adulation, ordinary persons with marked deference, and counter-revolutionaries with the hypocritical and ostentatious respectfulness associated with royal courts.
I’ve had cause to think about this more than a few times in my nearly three month long history of interaction with the Congressional Representative for my district, Lee Zeldin. Palmer is surely understating the difficulty of understanding how impressive an elected legislator can be. Members of Congress today tend to inspire some degree of disgust, not reverence. Zeldin, though, is interesting when one considers Palmer’s description of the deputies to the National Convention as simple men who sought no glory, yet were treated as the royalty they had replaced. In Zeldin’s case, there is another reversal: despite simply being an elected public servant, he seems to want to enjoy the deference of royalty.
Last Sunday, Zeldin made what I will (in the spirit of charity) call a personal development breakthrough: he actually appeared in front of an audience of his constituents. It took several months of pressure, but he did it. And despite the combative nature of the first event, he did not respond with the whiny insults about “liberal obstructionists” to which his constituents have become accustomed. Instead his attitude, in his after-event Facebook post, was celebratory:
Thank you to everyone who came out to today’s three Town Hall events across the First Congressional District. The first Community Forum was hosted by Suffolk County Community College at their Riverhead Campus, and moderated by Suffolk County Comptroller John Kennedy. The second Community Forum was hosted by LI News Radio and the Portuguese American Center, held at the Portuguese American Center in Farmingville, and moderated by Jay Oliver from LI News Radio. The third Town Hall was hosted by Catholics for Freedom of Religion and held at St. Patrick’s Church in Smithtown. Greatest congressional district in America!
I feel that I can’t help but call this progress. And in the spirit of fairness, I think it has to be said that #wheresleezeldin is a dead meme. We know where he is. The substantial issue now is the style of his appearances.
Read over that post again. Notice anything interesting about how he characterizes the events? He switches back and forth between calling them “town halls” and “community forums.” Broken down to their root meanings, these are somewhat interchangeable terms, but I’d argue that this distinction matters.
Prior to Sunday, these scheduled appearances were specifically termed “community forums,” which inevitably made for a contrast with “town halls.” As one local pre-event story points out:
Some residents of the First Congressional District, upset with the Trump administration and some of the positions the congressman has taken, have demanded that Zeldin hold a “town hall” meeting in the district to answer constituents questions and hear their concerns. Zeldin has resisted their demands and has said he did not believe a town hall meeting would be productive. In February, he held a “telephone town hall” — where residents were able to call into a conference line. More than 9,000 people joined the call, Zeldin’s spokesperson said afterward.
The fact that he called them “community forums” really seemed to matter given this noted and much derided resistance on Zeldin’s part to hold a town hall. But now he sees fit to call these appearances “town halls” or “community forums” as he pleases. I feel that there is a strategy here. As one of his supporters wrote in a comment on his post, “Hopefully now all [those] complaining about ‘town halls’ are satisfied.”
Are we? Should we be? Is that really the point of all this?
Since the beginning of February, I’ve been working with a local political organization called Project Free Knowledge. We made confronting Zeldin as concerned citizens one of our earliest major priorities. On February 23rd, a small group of us (myself and three others) made the forty minute drive to his Riverhead office to have a sit-down meeting with him. Like many interactions with him, strangeness was the first impression.
Outside the office there were about a dozen protestors from a few local political groups and nearly as many police officers scattered about. Major police presence is one consistent theme of how Zeldin operates when he meets with constituents. Whether he is legitimately afraid of small crowds of women in pink pussy hats I can’t say, but it does make an impression. On anyone who wants to meet with him, seeing so much police presence is disconcerting. To the neutral observer, though, I suspect the impression might be that where there’s smoke there’s fire. Perhaps, one might think, Zeldin really needs that level of security. I wonder if this is intentional.
Attempting to get a foot in the door is the next ordeal you face. We had to wait to be rung in, and then spent about ten minutes in a vestibule between the outer and inner front doors haggling over who would actually get to see Zeldin. His staffers claimed that I was an un-accounted-for presence and could not come in. We had definitely informed his office in advance that there would be four of us. His staffers refused to consider the email exchange record of this fact and acted like bouncers dealing with difficult would-be club goers. “You can wait here to figure it out, or you can come up now, but you’re cutting into your time,” one said. Zeldin was scheduling 30 minute audiences and the prospect of a delay led to our group (with my encouragement) deciding to go up without me. I later found out that there were more than enough empty chairs in the room for me. I have heard that this kind of bullshit power play that leaves his constituents out in the cold is not unusual.
I used the word “audience” before intentionally because this is what I mean about Zeldin’s style being more appropriate to a monarch than a representative of the people. He carefully curates interactions with a heavy security presence and a kind of supplicant’s ritual of access. This is why, in response to suggestions that I and others who think like me be mollified by his recent community/town forum/hall, I have to decline. This regal curation of access is a consistent theme of his style up to and including Sunday’s events.
Zeldin perhaps truly does feel under a degree of threat from his angry constituents. Not necessarily personal, but professional. Unfortunately for him, unlike real royalty, there is no lèse majeste law to protect him from ridicule. Out of frustration with his petty and self-serving method of interaction, Project Free Knowledge held a “People’s Town Hall” with one of our members playing the role of a comical Fake Lee Zeldin. (You can view the whole thing here.) I ended up being conscripted as a last-minute substitute for the role of his unannounced mystery opponent, “The People’s Candidate,” whose main job was to present a frank left-leaning alternative to Zeldin’s prepared statements (which Fake Lee read verbatim). So not very difficult for me, and a lot of fun. The packed venue highlights how important a town hall is to his constituents. Prior to the event, Zeldin had held a number of shoddy substitutes, “telephone town halls” or Facebook live Q&A sessions, which had all the elements of mediated access that his constituents don’t want. These events allowed him to select what to respond to and to do so in a way that prevents any back-talk.
The reaction of Zeldin’s office to our event is perhaps instructive. As an aside in a response to an online poll showing how unfavorably he is viewed, his Libel Dept. Spokeswoman Jennifer DiSienna had this to say:
There was a really important poll last Election Day, when Congressman Zeldin was re-elected by an overwhelming margin of 18 points. Liberal obstructionists would like to pretend that was not the case. These are the same obstructionists who got together this past Saturday to do their own ‘Mock Town Hall’ and demonstrated exactly why Congressman Zeldin and most NY-1 constituents won’t associate themselves with them, declaring at the Mock Town Hall that it’s okay to shoot up black churches, multiple times trying to connect the President of the United States to Nazism, criticizing the Congressman’s concern for homeless veterans, and their so called ‘people’s candidate,’ launching a tirade against the President.
Now, I will admit to launching tirades against 45 any day of the week because he deserves it. And if Zeldin’s office doesn’t like claims that their Dear Leader is connected to Nazis, they should have more to say about all the white supremacist cretins he surrounds himself with. But condoning anti-black terrorism? Mocking concern for homeless vets? You can decide for yourself, but this is complete horseshit. To believe the former, well, come the hell on. This isn’t even a plausible lie. Putting aside race for a moment, what liberal audience is into mass shootings? You’d have to be unable to understand sarcasm to believe this. As for “criticizing the Congressman’s concern for homeless veterans,” you’d have to be incapable of nuance to believe that. I commended him for his concerns and suggested that perhaps he take an interest in homelessness overall.
But this kind of petty reaction is typical. Prior to this event, when protests against him were first heating up, Zeldin had this to say:
Liberal obstructionists are disrupting, resisting and destructing public events all around America. Our neighbors want to actually engage in substantive, productive, constructive dialogue and the liberal obstructionists are spitting on them with their shameful shows for their own political theater. They think they are embarrassing other people, but they are really just embarrassing themselves. Just because it’s your right, doesn’t make you right. I will work with absolutely anyone to move our country forward however possible, but I don’t, can’t and won’t associate myself with people who have taken an oath of disrespect to get ahead in life. If you want to be heard, the tactic of mutual respect works wonders. Peace and love. Be Cool and Don’t Be a Liberal Obstructionist.
Again, his much more mature response to Sunday’s events shows progress, but he has never answered for these insults and weird accusations about “oaths of disrespect.” Now I have to wonder just what it is that he thinks people have sworn to disrespect. (Incidentally, I’d say that dividing his constituents into “our neighbors” and a shadowy cabal of “obstructionists” is pretty disrespectful.) He is certainly being disrespected, but then again, that’s part of the job of a representative of the people. He gets to hear whatever the people have to say about him. His predecessor Tim Bishop certainly had to, a fact which may worry him greatly. Perhaps it deeply wounds his kingly self-image, but he certainly doesn’t get to complain about “disruption” after riding the Tea Party wave.
It goes further than that. Zeldin frames the issue of his critical constituents in ways that make him seem superficially like a good-natured well-intentioned public servant, but which betray a fundamental lack of understanding about democracy and the dynamics of respect that prevail in it. He continuously claims to want “productive dialog” and blames “disruptors” for robbing everyone else of the chance to have it. But nothing about his methods of interaction – the excessive security presence, the careful curation of access, the intermediaries between him and constituents at actual forums he does set up – indicate that he wants anything of the sort. Perhaps I am wrong that he misunderstands what I think he does: that disruption is sometimes productive.
This brings us to the community forums/”town halls.”
I attended two events, one in the afternoon at the Riverhead campus of Suffolk County Community College, and the other as a church in the evening. Once again, weirdness prevailed from the start. There was a police car at the front gates checking everyone who came in. There were probably a dozen police officers around the building where the forum was held, including (bafflingly) a police dog. Crime scene tape cordoned off the lawns – no illicit picnicking allowed! At one point, the crowd was informed that all bags must be at most the size of a hand, forcing multiple women to trudge back to their cars to stow their purses away, and to potentially risk their spot on line.
That there was a line was impressive given the out-of-the-way location. A lot of people wanted to confront Zeldin, but just as many were disappointed by the format: we’d have to submit our questions in advance on a card. This made the whole event an in-person version of his prior Facebook livestream and “tele-town hall” events. These cards would be vetted and sorted by a jury of three political allies and then condensed into an editorialized format by the moderator, Suffolk County Comptroller John Kennedy. Zeldin would then get to respond to this heavily mediated version of his constituents’ concerns. So, yes, points for finally developing enough of a spine to appear in person in front of a mixed and un-curated crowd of constituents, but this is not a town hall. It’s an exhibition, a kind of courtly ritual. You might even call it “political theater.”
Let me explain what it is that we want as a town hall: we want a forum that Lee doesn’t get to control in all aspects. We want him to answer whatever concerns we bring in, on the spot, with as much honesty as he can muster (even if this means admitting to not being able to answer). We want to be able to ask follow-up and clarifying questions. We want him on the record on the issues without any help from a privy cabinet of flunkies. Lee seemed to know in advance that this was not what he was going to give us, but he was happy to claim that that’s what it was afterward when it suited him. Clever boy.
Nearly from the start, the script got flipped. Zeldin came in to the upbeat sounds of J. Geil’s Band’s “Angel is a Centerfold” (not really sure what a song about buying an issue of Playboy to see a high school sweetheart nude has to do with his appearance, but again, weirdness is the order of the day with him). At first it seemed like people were willing to let him guide events, but after about 10 minutes of blather no one cared about, someone spoke up and asked him to get to the questions. Zeldin accused this man of being a known disruptor, a charge which was denied. But I’d say Zeldin has the right of it: this was a disruption. And it’s a perfect example of the productive power of disruption Zeldin fears. Who knows how long he would have droned on about estuaries otherwise? (This seemed like stalling at the time, but to Zeldin’s credit, he made amends for it by staying later than the event’s scheduled ending.)
Probably the most telling and powerful moment of the event was when the mother of a person suffering from a heroin addiction dared to interrupt and demand an answer from him on whether he would vote to gut addiction treatment funding. You can watch a synopsis here, but it leaves something critical out: having asked for Zeldin to answer her question, Comptroller Kennedy just flat out denied her at first, insisting on the need to stick to the cards. The reaction from the audience was immediate: shock, disgust, anger. Zeldin ended up responding, although not answering. I’d argue that this is productive disruption as well, although while what it produced was necessary, it was not very good for Zeldin’s image.
This plainly shows is the inadequacy of the format. While I thought the card jury had selected a good mix of questions, it’s hard not to think that some bias in selection had been applied. Especially when the moderator exercises the prerogative to condense and reword questions into a more agreeable format. That’s nothing like a dialog, and it’s not productive, and this woman’s bold interjection demonstrates the problem and how self-defeating these mediated interactions are.
And that is the ultimate irony of Zeldin’s style of interaction. The more he tries to control the situations in which he meets constituents, the more we will want to exceed these controls and confront him on our own terms. Holding a “community forum” where constituents only get to ask questions through the guiding help of his privy council and prime minister/moderator is practically begging for disruption, which is really the expression of a frustrated desire for responsiveness from a public servant.
Zeldin’s fans on Facebook and in the audience seemed to not appreciate what actually happened any more than he did. After the fact, they said (in Facebook comments) that they were sorry that liberals were so rude to him. At the time, several of them paradoxically called for “respect” some times and other times told the more vocal and critical audience members to “shut up.” I remember a woman sitting nearby who was very upset that people would interrupt Zeldin, saying she understood their desire for answers, but insisting that it should be “orderly.” Perhaps it is not just Lee Zeldin who doesn’t “get it,” it’s his supporters as well. So I’d like to make a few clarifications about rudeness, order, and democracy.
Firstly, if you’re conservative-leaning and want us to be respectful to Lee Zeldin, fuck off. Your side took decorum off the table back in 2009, and I am not going to put up with you demanding it in 2017.
Secondly, let’s consider what behavior is disrespectful. Most people would agree that it is disrespectful to interrupt someone who is trying to answer a question. This was a common complaint at the time, with an accusation of inconsistency: we want to ask him questions, we claim we want answers, but we don’t let him answer? This, I think, reflects a difference in understanding of what an “answer” is. For some people, it seems, any old words said after a question is asked suffices to be an answer. For others, an answer is composed of words in response to a question that provide the information requested. Zeldin is adept at using the former to avoid having to do the latter. From this perspective, these interruptions look different because another example of rude behavior is to dodge a question by responding with a non-answer. In that case, interruptions are reminders that he needs to stay on track.
Lastly, what about order? Order is very important to monarchs, who want order in their courts. But democracy isn’t orderly. If the people have power, then they may exercise it as they see fit, without regard for decorum or respect. If we had been orderly, we’d have heard about 30 minutes of bragging about his local legislative initiatives followed by another 30 of canned answers to carefully-recrafted pseudo-inquiries. At the “community forum” on Sunday, the people demanded substance using disorderly behavior. That is what Lee Zeldin signed up for when he decided to be a representative of the people. He doesn’t get to play king, he gets to play servant.