Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Going to War in Ignorance

Some people want the United States to intervene forcefully in Ukraine. Most of them don’t know where Ukraine is.

A recent survey compared what Americans wanted to do about the situation in Ukraine with their ability to locate Ukraine on a map. Only one in six placed Ukraine properly in southeastern Europe. Respondents put Ukraine all over Africa and Asia, even in Canada and in the U.S. The average answer was about 1800 miles off. Partisan voters on both sides did poorly compared to independents.

Geographical ignorance is unfortunate, but it’s a serious problem when it leads to dangerous foreign policy. The survey’s authors concluded, “The farther their guesses were from Ukraine’s actual location, the more they wanted the U.S. to intervene with military force.”

In our recent history, ignorance and war have formed a grievous mixture. We know how the Bush administration’s highest officials, including the President himself, misled Americans, from Congress to the broader public, about the danger that Iraq and Saddam Hussein posed to us. If they had not been so busy drumming up support for a war they had long intended to start, we could have avoided the invasion of Iraq in 2003, almost nine years of fighting, and 4500 deaths of American soldiers.

The escalation of American involvement in Vietnam a generation earlier was prompted by President Lyndon Johnson’s assertion in August 1964 that the North Vietnamese had attacked an American ship in the Gulf of Tonkin. Within a week, Congress passed a resolution authorizing him “to take all necessary steps, including the use of armed force” in Southeast Asia, without a declaration of war. By early 1965, American planes were bombing North Vietnam and American combat troops poured into South Vietnam.

In those two horrific cases, American political leaders drove us into wars of their own making by telling us lies, both about what happened in other parts of the world and about what they really wanted to do and why. We will probably never be able to penetrate the deceitful statements of our political leaders. But we can as a people learn more about the world.

Americans who have no idea where Ukraine is certainly don’t know that Ukraine was one of the most advanced regions of the Soviet Union, and that Russian political leaders and many ordinary Russians fear what will happen to their dreams of greatness if Ukraine becomes a Western ally. Not knowing where Ukraine is means not having any idea about what we should do in and after the current crisis.

There are many others who know exactly where Ukraine is, who understand Ukraine’s history and strategic significance, but who ignore what they know in favor of seeking partisan political advantage. Because President Obama can never do anything right on any issue, Republican leaders are gambling with war, more concerned with their own political power than with our national security.

In March, Obama clearly stated the basis of his policy: “We are not going to be getting into a military excursion in Ukraine.” Since that moment, Republicans in Congress have advocated military intervention. Senator John McCain immediately responded with his party’s favorite characterization: “This is the ultimate result of a feckless foreign policy in which nobody believes in America's strength any more.” McCain wants to send small arms and ammunition to Kiev. “The United States should not be imposing an arms embargo on a victim of aggression.”

Senator Marco Rubio, a much younger man with presidential ambitions, agrees. In an op-ed piece in the Washington Post, Rubio wrote that the Obama administration’s refusal to send weapons to Ukraine is “shameful”. Making Crimea the most important issue on the world stage, he wants to send military aid to Ukraine and stop working with Russia on negotiations with Iran. He also wants to send US “military assets”, including personnel, to Poland and the Baltic states, where we currently have none.

House Intelligence Committee Chair Mike Rogers responded to the Russian annexation of Crimea by advocating “non-combatant military aid”, by which he meant medical supplies, radio equipment, and “defensive posture weapons systems.” Senator Bob Corker took an apparently more moderate approach: only after this crisis is over, the US should create a military relationship with Ukraine. McCain wants that to happen sooner rather than later, bringing Ukraine into a relationship with NATO.

The most radical war-mongers are not in Congress, but in the conservative media. William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, told CNN that “deploying ground troops … should not be ruled out.”

What do we get from this kind of military adventurism in places where Americans have never been and know little about? Our ignorant entry into Vietnam was a disaster. We have left Iraq in a state of disintegration. After nearly 13 years of fighting and dying in Afghanistan, our man in Kabul since we invaded in 2001, Hamid Karzai, just joined the tiny group of world leaders who recognize the Russian annexation of Crimea, along with Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, and Sudan.

The genuine ignorance of the American public about world affairs is troubling. The willful ignorance of our political leaders about the consequences of their political posturing is deadly.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, April 15, 2014

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Making Girls Into Women

This is an important, but complicated story. Sunnie Kahle was adopted by her great-grandparents, Doris and Carroll Thompson, because her mother was unable to raise her. Doris Thompson said, “I wanted Sunnie to have a Christian education,” so they sent her to Timberlake Christian Schools. Sunnie began to have trouble when she decided to cut her waist-length hair short and donate it to cancer patients. Her pre-K teacher raised concerns about Sunnie’s gender identity. In kindergarten, another girl thought Sunnie was a boy. That led the teacher to again raise the issue of Sunnie’s identity. In second grade, some boys tried to pull Sunnie into the boys’ bathroom. Again school staff questioned Sunnie’s behavior.

A few months later, Principal Becky Bowman sent a letter to the Thompsons. It’s worth quoting. Bowman emphasized that the School’s role is “to mold students to be Christlike,” and then reserved the right to “discontinue enrollment of a student” when “the atmosphere or conduct within particular home is counter to or in opposition to the biblical lifestyle.” To be sure that the Thompsons understood what she meant, Bowman specified that the issue was “condoning or supporting sexual immorality; practicing homosexual lifestyle or alternative gender identity.” Bowman then wrote that “unless Sunnie clearly understands that god has made her female and her dress and behavior need to follow suit with her God-ordained identity, that TCS is not the best place for her future education.”

To Principal Bowman, some teachers, and some boys and girls at Timberlake, Sunnie’s “dress and behavior” did not follow their ideas about “her God-ordained identity”. They were so sure that her short hair and her preference for jeans over dresses were evidence of immorality in her home, that they singled her out for humiliation and exclusion. Perhaps we could excuse the boys and girls, who need not take responsibility for what they were taught about proper gender behavior.

Sunnie was heartbroken about leaving her school, and the Timberlake authorities have shunned all responsibility for their behavior. Their subsequent open letter is clear that they stand behind “traditional values”, and that their mission is to “instill Christian values”.  They hired some lawyers, who then blamed the Thompson family, saying “the facts are not as S.K.'s great-grandparents have portrayed them”. Their lawyer then claimed, “This is not at all about how she is dressing.”

To those who want to mold little girls into their narrow vision of what women should be, who anxiously search for any signs of “immorality”, it’s never too early to wield the sword of discipline on deviators.

I don’t think this is just about Christianity. The gender identity guardians at Timberlake Christian Schools are more concerned with “traditional values” than with modeling Christlike behavior. They are joined by many others who wish to impart a particular vision of what a girl should be. On Sunday, March 30, the rules for the Princess Contest of our local Morgan County Fair Pageant were published, outlining a vision of the perfect girl. They specify that girls between 5 and 7 will be judged on beauty, personality and charm, to be determined by how they look and act in a party dress and a swimsuit.

What does a 5-year old learn when she is judged by her appearance in a swimsuit? What does an 8-year old learn when her teacher and her principal take the side of the boys who try to humiliate her by dragging her into the boys’ bathroom? Why can’t girls wear pants? Why must they have long hair?

Timberlake Christian Schools says it’s about following Christ. The Morgan County Fair Pageant seems to be about beauty. I say it’s about indoctrination into a narrow definition of gender that ranks girls and women by their appearance, that demands their subservience to male ideals and men’s authority, that demonizes any deviation from heterosexuality.

Even the most liberal people appear to have trouble abandoning traditional sexist values and the social practices that support them. Just this year, the Miss Southern California Cities and Miss Long Beach competition stopped making their “little Miss” competitors aged 6 to 10 wear swimsuits. The “Mrs.” contestants (must be over 21) also won’t wear swimsuits, but the Teen (13-18) and Miss (19-30) will. You are only allowed to ogle unmarried girls, apparently. Yet this pageant welcomes same-sex couples and pregnant Mrs. contestants.

Sunnie said, “I should just be able to be me and not let them worry about it.” But despite her 4.0 average, some people will never let Sunnie be herself, if that conflicts with their ideas of what a girl should be.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, April 10, 2014

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

How Things Really Work

In schools across the country, students are taught about American democracy. Phrases like “separation of powers” accompany charts showing how ultimate power in our country rests with “the people”. It’s a wonderful system.

But democracy is a theory. Here’s how things really work.

In every city in the US, storefront businesses offer “Same Day Cash” or “Easy Credit”. The so-called payday loan industry makes millions of short-term loans every year. The typical cost for a payday loan is 15% for a two-week loan, an annual rate of 390%. In Illinois, most borrowers of payday loans with a term of 6 months have an annual income of less than $30,000. The average amount borrowed was $614, but the total fees were $640, meaning a yearly rate of 234%. A similar type of loan is called a title loan, in which the borrower offers title to a car as security: if the loan is not paid back, the company confiscates the car. These loans typically carry about 300% interest.

The results are predictable, as shown in a report earlier this month about 12 million loans across the US. Only 15% of borrowers were able to repay their loan without borrowing again. Most payday borrowers ended up paying more in fees than the original loan amount.

In 2010, Congress passed the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. That was a political response to the financial crisis caused by the reckless behavior of banks and other financial institutions. An important provision of the Dodd-Frank bill was to empower a new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) to oversee payday lenders by enforcing new consumer protection rules. In the House, 92% of Democrats voted for the bill and 98% of Republicans voted against it. In the Senate, one Democrat voted against the bill because he thought it wasn’t strong enough, and only 3 Republicans voted for it.

Senate Republicans then mounted an effort to prevent the newly created CFPB from ever functioning: they vowed not to confirm any nominee to head the Bureau. Richard Cordray was not confirmed as director until 2013.

The CFPB gave the Attorneys General of the 50 states powers to regulate payday lenders. In Utah, Republican John Swallow, chief deputy to the Attorney General, decided to run for that office when his boss retired. Swallow had once been a lobbyist for Check City, a giant payday lender. Swallow wrote an email to payday executives, saying, “This industry will be a focus of the CFPB unless a group of AG’s goes to bat for the industry.” Now he mounted a campaign funded with hundreds of thousands of dollars from Check City and other payday lenders. But that money was hidden behind a series of political action committees and “non-profit” corporations. Republican power brokers in Utah helped Swallow raise these funds and camouflage their purposes.

Not all Republicans lined up behind the payday industry. Three Republican Senators had voted for Dodd-Frank. In Utah, a state legislator had supported legislation barring payday lenders from making loans to people who already had big debts. Swallow’s opponent for Attorney General also wanted to crack down on the payday lending industry. The organizations that funneled money into Swallow’s campaign used negative advertising against both of them. Behind all that unregulated money, Swallow won the race for Attorney General.

The greatly increased use of vast sums of unregulated money to influence political campaigns is a result of the decision of the Supreme Court in the Citizens United case in 2010, which reversed Congressional restrictions on funding on political campaigns and has since allowed unlimited contributions from individuals, corporations and unions collected by “super PACs”. That decision was made by a 5-4 majority of the most conservative Supreme Court justices.

After Swallow’s victory, the IRS began to suspect that some of the support for Swallow came from illegal political campaigning by “social welfare organizations” created by payday lenders’ money. But the IRS became engulfed in controversy when Congressional Republicans accused it of targeting conservative organizations. We have since learned that many types of organizations, not only conservative ones, had been targeted by IRS investigations into whether they were illegally engaging in political activities. With the IRS hobbled by Congressional inquiries, Swallow and his helpers thought they were safe. But Utah legislators began to follow up, and found enough documents to reveal the duplicity behind Swallow’s election. In November Swallow resigned.

A happy ending? Not yet. Republican-controlled state legislatures in swing states are increasing their efforts to make it harder to vote. In Ohio, Wisconsin, North Carolina and other states, Republicans are reducing the days that polls are open for early voting, especially on weekends, eliminating same-day registration, making absentee voting more difficult, or demanding proof of citizenship, such as a passport. All of these measures have disproportionate effects on the poor, who tend to vote Democratic.

Add it all up. Republican legislators try to prevent the government from protecting citizens from payday vultures, use payday money to tilt elections so they can eviscerate any possible regulations, while making it more difficult for the poor and minorities to vote.

Maybe that’s what they mean when they say you can’t trust government.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, April 1, 2014