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Weekly Features
Letter from New York
Mathew Tombers is Managing Director of Intermat, Inc., ( a television company which executive produces programs and consults with industry companies on a variety of issues. Intermat, Inc. is currently involved in approximately thirty hours of television in various stages for a variety of networks. He is one of the Executive Producers of OFF TO WAR, a ten hour series for Discovery Times and for a one hour on international adoptions for Discovery Health. He has consulted a variety of companies, including Ted Turner Documentaries, WETA, Betelgeuse Productions, and Creation Films, Lou Reda Productions as well as many others.

May 17, 2006

Thinking about the freedom to disagree…

Last week I voted. It wasn’t a big election: members of the local School Board were elected and the school budget approved. Approval means a modest tax increase I am willing to pay as I think both arts AND sports belong in schools and both were cut last year.

I vote at volunteer fire department headquarters in my hamlet. There, I am reminded of the civic mindedness of my fellow country men – whenever the siren calls, these men and women drop everything and rush to serve – something I value deeply having had our house almost burn down when I was young. I am grateful they are there while at the same time I pray I will never need them.

In that pristine and modern fire station, there were a few people voting. Only one machine had been pulled out; it was apparent no rush was expected. Yet there was a steady flow of folks, moving purposefully in and out of the voting booth. Standing, waiting my turn, I tasted in my soul the privilege I was experiencing.

We take voting for granted here in America; it is our right even if we don’t exercise it [and many of us don’t]. Yet we have the right to vote up or down any number of initiatives and budgets; we get to choose who sits for us in Congress and in the Senate, state and national and we get to choose the people who will be our voices. It is an incredible process taken for granted by most people.

My friend Brent Renaud, one of the producers of OFF TO WAR, wrote me a long e-mail about how during the first elections in Iraq the people ran toward the voting places as the mortars fell. I wondered then as I wonder now how many of Americans would risk mortars to exercise this privilege.

As I was voting, I was reading and following in the news the national discourse which is occurring over the report published by USA Today regarding just how extensive is our government’s monitoring of phone calls.

We all have [at least I think we all have] very mixed feelings about the measures taken by this administration in the name of security.

I am doing some work with a company out of the U.K. It represents a couple of films, both of which are critical of the official take on the events of 9/11. Both raise excellent questions; one of them is fairly extreme in its take, postulating 9/11 was a right wing plot to create a ‘contemporary Pearl Harbor.’

When I was on the phone the other day speaking with the more moderate of the two producers our call was harassed by a series of unexplained clicks, which I jokingly ascribed to the government listening in on us.

I am not sure he thought I was joking.

This week Hirsi Ali [the Dutch Parliamentarian who worked with Theo Van Gogh on a film about Islamic persecution of women which resulted in his assassination] admitted lying on her application for asylum in the Netherlands and was told to leave the country, not long after being told to leave her apartment as her presence was interfering with her neighbors – they were distraught over the security surrounding her since she had been marked for death by Islamic extremists.

There is a furor in the Netherlands over all of this, understandably. Her treatment has caused some Dutch to wonder if there is not a parallel to the way some Dutch responded to the Nazis during World II.

All of this leads back to my moment at the polling place, my little volunteer fire department station, thinking and treasuring what it means to be free, free to vote, to make decisions, to disagree.

Hirsi Ali just gave a speech in Berlin about the fact that democracy means we are free to disagree and, God love us, we ARE. And that is what is important and sacred about democracy: it is institutionalized disagreement and institutionalized freedom. It is messy, it is imperfect, and it is absolutely the sweetest thing we undervalue in this country.