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Joseph Sabino Mistick

Joseph Sabino Mistick: Pay attention to the basics

| Saturday, April 14, 2018, 9:00 p.m.

Even a short trip on Pittsburgh's streets can have you cursing, after your car slams into one of those garage-sized potholes, which are everywhere. They rattle teeth, flatten tires, bend wheels and cause drivers to swerve dangerously or slam on the brakes.

Liberty Avenue, through the Bloomfield neighborhood, is just one of many city streets that looks like the treacherous and cratered roadway between the Baghdad airport and the Green Zone during the occupation of Iraq.

As the weather breaks, there will be patching and paving, but that will be too late for those who have had their cars wrecked, along with their family budgets and their faith in government.

There is no magic involved in keeping the roads safe. Repaving them a year before the end of their useful life does the job. But that depends on politicians who pay attention to the basics of local government and are not distracted by the latest shiny object.

Last week, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright made that same point about the basics of democracy in an op-ed column in The New York Times. Depending on your politics, you may have trouble getting past the provocative headline — “Will We Stop Trump Before It's Too Late?” — but her message is important, regardless of allegiances.

Albright cites the defeat of fascism in the spring of 1945, followed by the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as the beginning of democracy's prevalence. And after the destruction of the Berlin Wall and a wave of elected governments around the globe, Albright says, “Freedom was ascendant.”

But that has changed. As a result of “terrorism, sectarian conflicts, vulnerable borders, rogue social media and the cynical schemes of ambitious men,” she says, American values are fading, adding that “fascism — and the tendencies that lead toward fascism — pose a more serious threat now than at any time since the end of World War II.”

It is hard to challenge her point, as strongmen tighten their grip in Hungary, the Philippines, Poland, Turkey, Egypt, Syria, Iran, Russia and across Africa. Even countries that have been our allies and have tried to follow our democratic example are nearly lost.

Now 80 years old, the veteran of international diplomacy claims that there are three simple steps that can preserve America's example of freedom and keep democracy on track.

“First, defend the truth,” she says. “A free press ... is the protector of the American people.

“Second, we must reinforce the principle that no one, not even the president, is above the law.

“Third, we should each do our part to energize the democratic process by registering new voters, listening respectfully to those with whom we disagree,” knocking on doors for the candidates of our choice and ignoring the cynics.

The stakes are much higher than those we face on the streets of Pittsburgh, but the political lesson is the same. So, the next time you hit one of those jarring potholes, be reminded that even the road to freedom and justice will crumble if we do not pay attention to the basics.

Joseph Sabino Mistick is a Pittsburgh lawyer (

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