Editorial: VGN election holds up ugly mirror to us

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The letter to the editor was emailed to us last Saturday, expressing concerns that the focus of the upcoming election in the Village of Great Neck was becoming one of ethnicity – not local issues such as taxes and local development.

The letter, which was signed by a “group of disturbed and confused Chinese-Americans in Great Neck,” said they were being pressured by members of their own community to vote for mayoral challenger James Wu because he was a Chinese-American and his opponent was Jewish.

“This election is becoming in many circles a Chinese vs. Jewish fight,” the letter added.

Wu was running against Mayor Pedram Bral, a doctor who emigrated from Iran more than three decades ago and is Jewish.

For his part, Wu had said he had heard people were being told to vote against him because he was a Chinese-American.

We responded to the email on Sunday, saying the newspaper’s policy was to include the name or names of those writing a letter and the communities in which they lived.

On Tuesday, we received a response, saying the group had decided to publish the letter under the name of the person sending the email – Mandy Lee of the Village of Great Neck. The email address included the name Mandylee.

The letter was published on Tuesday afternoon.

On Wednesday morning, we received a phone call from a woman who said her name was Mandy Lee, that she lived in Great Neck but not the Village of Great Neck, that she did not write the letter that was published and that her name was being used by a supporter of Bral.

The email sender, who included her home address for verification and signed her name The Real Mandy Lee, demanded that the letter be taken off our website. She said she and her family had been subjected to angry comments.

She also said the letter did not reflect her views and was “clearly trying to divide our community by providing false information.” Her email address did not include the name Mandy Lee.

The newspaper then attempted to verify the claims of the two people claiming to be Mandy Lee.

We wrote an email to the letter writer, explaining the claim and asking that the letter writer send further proof that she was, in fact, Mandy Lee – her home address and a photo of her license. We explained the purpose was just to verify her identity and would not be included in the paper.

We verified the identity of the second letter writer by her address and names of individuals in Great Neck with whom we were familiar.

When we did not hear back from the first letter writer by Wednesday afternoon, we took the letter down from our website and removed it from our print edition, which was about to be published.

Then, after the paper went to press, we received an email from the first letter writer, saying she was Mandy Lee and there apparently were two women with the same name living in Great Neck. But, she said, she did not want to provide further proof after seeing“all those crazy verbal attacks and discussions in social media.”

Welcome to the Village of Great Neck. And welcome to American politics in the year 2019.

The Mandy Lee story is very much a story of Great Neck, exposing the fault lines of ethnicity, racial differences, immigrants from Iran, religious conflicts between orthodox, conservative and reform Jews and, of course, political differences between Democrats and Republicans in the era of Donald Trump.

During the heated exchange over Mandy Lee, an even more heated email exchange was taking place among Jewish residents. The exchange ranged from concerns over how to properly observe a particular Jewish holiday to complaints that a victory by Wu’s slate would encourage more black people to move into Great Neck because one of Wu’s running mates, Julia Shields, was black.

Concerns were also raised of misleading political advertising being distributed in houses of worship and of houses of worship actively participating in political campaigns.

This is not the first time that these kinds of division have appeared in Great Neck. Similar divisions have appeared in recent years in races for village government, school board and library board.

In a race for the library board, a Chinese-American candidate was verbally attacked at the Great Neck Street Fair because of her support for LBGTQ rights.

Sadly, this is also not new to elections anywhere in this country. The exploitation of people’s biases has been part of this country’s elections since our nation’s founding.

What is new is the impact of social media such as Facebook, email and the internet – and the person sitting in the White House. They have combined to inflame what was already a ugly blemish on our body politic.

The letter at the center of the Mandy Lee controversy never appeared in any of the Blank Slate Media papers. It only appeared online for less than a day.

But in that time, the letter became a widespread topic of conversation with the help of social media where behind a cloak of anonymity provided by Facebook and other social media the two people who said they were Mandy Lee were subjected to harsh criticism that both said made them concerned for their own safety and the safety of family members.

This should sound very familiar to every voter in this country.

The recently issued report from special counsel Robert Mueller detailed how Russian operatives used social media to foster divisiveness among Americans along all the fault lines on display in the Village of Great Neck and then some.

At the end of an investigation that Trump called a hoax, Mueller described in fine detail how 126 million Facebook messages were sent by Russians posing as Americans were read by voters during the 2016 election first to divide and then to elect Trump president.

Yes, it is true that Trump did not invent the use of divisions among Americans for political advantage. But he has certainly been a master in exploiting them for his advantage.

So, sadly, what has been taking place in Great Neck appears to be a sign of the times – and we should expect to be part of the 2020 presidential election.

We as a newspaper have always tried to give our readers as much an opportunity as we can to express their views. This can be seen in the many letters we published for and against candidates running on both slates in the Village of Great Neck election.

But we have also learned some valuable lessons about the new world in which we live – where we need to increase our vigilance to determine if someone is who they say they are.

So going forward, we are taking a small step by requiring letter-writers to provide their home addresses and phone numbers. Just in case.

The bigger question is what all of us can do to come together to develop solutions to our problems rather than being distracted by appeals that divide us.

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