Monday, January 15, 2018

Dangerous Words in the White House

It doesn’t bother me that Trump said the word “shithole”. I don’t know if my newspaper will print that word or sanitize it. Many media corporations are shifting their normal rules about what they say or print, because the President’s vulgar words are newsworthy.

“Dirty words”, like the ones George Carlin spelled out in 1972, have one by one been moving inexorably into the popular culture. I’m still always surprised to hear the word “sucks” on TV.

I was even more surprised to see one of the contestants on a prime-time quiz show on German TV, a man named H. P. Baxter, wearing a white T-shirt with big black letters spelling out “Who the FUCK is H.P. Baxxter?” playing on the name of a German musician. Nobody on air seemed to care.

I’ve never liked self-appointed language police. I believe we should all be able to choose our own words to fully express our meanings.

The meaning is what matters. Outraged focus on word choice can obscure the greater significance of meaning. That is happening with Trump’s “salty language”.

What bothers me is Trump’s meaning, when he said he wanted more immigrants from Norway and fewer from Africa. Any white is better than any black immigrant. It is difficult to find a clearer expression of white supremacy than Trump’s words to a gathering of Senators in the Oval Office.

I know some immigrants from Nigeria, Ghana and other black African nations, students I taught at Illinois College and their families. The students were sophisticated, multilingual, well educated and high achievers. They were a delight to have in the classroom. Some have stayed in the US in jobs or graduate school. None of them had lived in “huts”, as Trump characterized Nigerians in a June meeting.

Certainly Trump is not the first racist in the White House. White supremacy was an American principle at the founding and throughout the 19th century. Even Lincoln, the only President that Trump will grant to have been more presidential than himself, did not believe in the full equality of the races. He said in his debates with Stephen Douglas, “I am not, nor have ever been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races.”

During the 20th century, presidential thinking and action have pushed away from racist policy and language, sometimes leading, sometimes following American society’s increasing rejection of white supremacy. The election of Barack Obama could have been a sign that our national government would never again express white supremacist ideology in practice or speech.

But Donald Trump never accepted Obama’s election as legitimate. He led the most public fight to declare Obama an African and unworthy to be President. Racism in the guise of birtherism was Trump’s main political focus as he prepared his presidential campaign. He has never given up this idea.

Maybe Trump’s word choice is too crude for public and official presidential business. There might be two sides to that question. There shouldn’t be any question about advocating white supremacy in the White House.

Every elected representative of the American people, sworn to uphold the Constitution, should reject both Trump’s words and meanings. Of course, Trump denied using the words everybody heard him use. The most conservative Republicans at the Oval Office meeting pretended not to have heard them. Senators Tom Cotton (AR) and David Perdue (GA) said, “We do not recall the president saying these comments specifically.” No other Republicans who were there admitted publicly that Trump said those words, although Sen. Lindsay Graham told a fellow Senator about them.

Pretending that there is nothing to talk about appeases white supremacy at the highest level of government. Supporting such racist talk is a step in the direction of promoting racist policy.

Let’s not move backwards on racial equality, equal justice for all, support for diversity, and welcoming new Americans from all over the world. And let’s get that racist out of the White House.

Steve Hochstadt
Berlin, Germany
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, January 16, 2018

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

The Biggest Personality of the Year

On December 31, the first page of the Berlin newspaper “Tagesspiegel” (Daily Mirror) was covered with drawings of the political personalities of 2017. Most of them were German, but the biggest face in the middle of the page represented Donald Trump. Trump believes he ought to be the center of all attention. He was angry that he was not selected as TIME Magazine’s Person of the Year, and said so.

But he won’t be happy about his big picture: he had a duck bill, transformed into the cartoon buffoon Donald Duck, the only face that was so distorted. Inside, the review of the political year said that he twittered “nonsense” and has no scruples. In October, more than half of Germans surveyed said relations with the US were bad or very bad. The public thinks Trump is a bigger foreign policy problem than the dictators in North Korea and Russia.

No wonder, since Trump insulted the whole country, one of our closest allies in Europe. At a European Union summit in Brussels in May, he said, “The Germans are bad, very bad. Look at the millions of autos that they sell in the USA. Horrible. We’re gonna stop that.”

German auto makers don’t sell “millions” in the US, but they make hundreds of thousands of cars and employ thousands of workers here. The US can’t just “stop” importing German cars, it’s the whole European Union or nothing. German Chancellor Angela Merkel had already explained this to Trump 11 times during their meeting last March, but it had no effect.

Trump has rejected long-standing foreign policy agreements that are important to Germans, such as the Paris climate agreement and the nuclear deal with Iran. After meeting with Trump in May, Merkel felt the need to make the extraordinary statement that Europe must “really take our fate into our own hands. . . . The times in which we could rely fully on others, they are somewhat over. This is what I experienced in the last few days.” The German foreign minister said last month that “relations with the US will never be the same.”

Trump has also severely damaged the bond with our other most important ally, England. After he re-tweeted anti-Muslim videos from a far right British group, and then rebuked Prime Minister Theresa May, British leaders from all parties were outraged. Members of Parliament called him “stupid”, “racist” and “a fascist”. Parliament debated not allowing him to address them in a future visit, the second time that Parliament talked about whether to deny this American President a state visit. The Speaker of the House of Commons said that Trump would not be welcome to speak in Parliament. Half of Britons surveyed want Trump to be disinvited. The videos have nothing to do with immigration to Britain or the US.

Trump began damaging our relationship with Mexico at the start of his candidacy in 2015, by speaking in demeaning terms about all Mexicans in the US and demanding that Mexico pay for his gigantic Wall. Six days after Trump was inaugurated, Mexican President Peña Nieto canceled a trip to Washington, because of Trump’s insistence about the Wall. In a subsequent phone call, Trump threatened to impose tariffs on Mexican goods and demanded that Nieto stop saying that Mexico would not pay for the Wall: “if you are going to say that Mexico is not going to pay for the Wall, then I do not want to meet with you guys anymore, because I cannot live with that.”

Peña Nieto’s attempts to continue cordial relations with the US government sent his approval ratings down under 15%. A poll in July found that 88% of Mexicans viewed Trump unfavorably. With no evidence that Mexico will make any contribution toward the wall, Trump said again on Saturday that Mexico will pay for the Wall, but he asked Congress to appropriate $18 billion for it.

A new Mexican President will be elected in July, and Mexican officials have told Washington that Trump’s behavior might help whoever is the most anti-American candidate win. Duncan Wood, the director of the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute, part of the Smithsonian Institute, said, “Having worked in international relations for twenty years, I never thought we’d get to the point where one person could come along and blow everything up. But here we are.”

Trump is blowing up our relationships with all our most important foreign friends. He is not the biggest peacemaker, as we have long hoped our Presidents could be. He is not the biggest promoter of democracy, which we have long claimed is our national interest. He is not the best advertisement for America, not the face we wish to show the world. His work is a world-wide disaster.

He just gets the most attention, which he demands and will do anything to keep. Too bad he only succeeds at being the biggest personality, not the best President.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville, IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, January 9, 2018

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Arcing Toward Equality in 2017

Conservatives might celebrate 2017 as a year of triumph. I’m not sure, because I don’t understand the current American conservative mind. Having a man represent you as President who is a constant liar, an abuser of women, and an incompetent manager of people might outweigh the few conservative pieces of legislation he has signed, even if one is a big tax cut for rich people. But most conservatives rallied around an apparent pedophile in Alabama, so ideology seems to be more important than character on the right wing.

What I do know is that American liberals have been thrown into despair by the new nastiness of American politics, as Republicans have given up the principles they defended for so many years in order to force a few political gains over the objections of the majority of voters. The daily news about Trump’s latest tweet, about the real nature of the tax cut, about the desertion of science in the federal bureaucracy, about the attempts to blind the public to the necessity of an informed media, all make each day’s headlines another affront to liberal values. Even worse, truth seems to have been redefined as a liberal value.

But behind the headlines, our country has been evolving in directions that liberals could find encouraging.

Public disdain for homosexuality and discriminatory behavior against homosexuals have a long history. Opinion surveys show an unchanging and strong majority believing that homosexual sex was “always wrong” until about 1990. Over the past 20 years that disapproval, expressed as opposition to same-sex marriage, has been gradually declining, from about 68% in 1997 to 53% in 2007, until approval finally won out over disapproval in 2012. That trend continued in 2017, as support for gay marriage was expressed by nearly two-thirds of Americans.

There are significant differences among sub-groups, with white evangelical Protestants and older Americans showing the least support. But all groups show increasing acceptance of the right of gay people to fully enjoy their lives, and the jump in 2017 from 27% to 35% among white evangelicals and from 18% to 41% among conservatives (these groups overlap considerably) means that 2018 might continue this trend.

Similarly, public acceptance of transgender Americans is rising, although there have only been surveys over the past few years. Since 2015, the Human Rights Campaign’s surveys show positive feelings about transgender people rising from 44% to 47%. In 2017, the proportion of Americans who said that transgender people should be able to use the bathroom of their choice jumped by 10 percentage points. The Boy Scouts of America both reflected this growing acceptance and pushed it further by announcing in January that transgender boys would be allowed to join. Joe Maldonado, who had been rejected in 2016, became a Boy Scout in February 2017.

The most notable cultural shift of 2017 was the public outrage over male sexual abuse of women, symbolized in December by TIME Magazine making female “silence breakers” the Person of the Year. The public naming and shaming of many egregious abusers was the culmination of the gradual shift in public opinion opened by Anita Hill’s testimony against Clarence Thomas in 1991, and accelerated by the prosecution of Bill Cosby beginning in 2015. 2017 may become known as the year in which sexual harassment became publicly unacceptable.

Discussion of the continuing racism in American society was heated in 2017, but it is harder to discern how much progress was made in the struggle for racial equality. On the positive side, the public glorification of the Confederate defense of slavery, which has been a fundamental feature of the way American history has been told since the late 19th century, may be coming to an end. Controversy over statues was the most conspicuous flashpoint of violence, but the reconsideration of the content of history textbooks and the naming of buildings at prominent universities point to a more lasting shift in the place of our painful racial history in American self-consciousness.

The public protests by black athletes at the beginning of the NFL season caused a significant backlash, as such protests did at the Olympics in 1968 and 1972, and in many less notable moments since then. In most cases, the athletes were severely disciplined, and Colin Kapernick’s 2016 protest was probably the reason for his continued unemployment as a professional football player. But in 2017, the protesters were not punished, perhaps a signal that public protests of racism, while not acceptable to many Americans, are now seen as within everybody’s democratic rights.

All of these long-term transformations in American culture and public opinion were condemned by conservatives, with Donald Trump in the lead. Backlash against the movement toward racial and sexual equality may have helped him win election, but even the power of the presidency has not been sufficient to stop it. 2017 was a difficult year for Americans committed to equality for all, but the long arc of the moral universe still bent toward justice.

May that continue in 2018.

Steve Hochstadt
Boston, MA
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, January 3, 2017