Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The Meaning of Plagiarism



First let’s be clear. Melania Trump plagiarized Michelle Obama’s speech of 2008. One of my unwelcome tasks as a reader of thousands of college student essays is to check for plagiarism. As soon as I see as few as 4 or 5 words in sequence which are exactly the same as someone else’s words, I know that they were copied. Even when hundreds of people write about the same thing, their word choices are unique.

In the climactic portion of her speech Melania used one passage of 23 consecutive words copied from Michelle, and another passage of 29 copied words with a few minor edits in the middle. For example Michelle’s use of “Barack and I” was edited out for obvious reasons.

Plagiarism is strike one. In high profile cases, it is often followed by strike two, denial. Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort, said “to think that she would be cribbing Michelle Obama’s words is crazy.” Manafort blamed Hillary Clinton for trying to “destroy” another woman, although the Clinton campaign had nothing to do with the exposure of plagiarism. Manafort’s denials of reality are not surprising, coming from a man who has worked for some of the world’s most brutal and corrupt dictators: Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, Mobutu Sese Seko in the Congo, and Mohamed Siad Barre in Somalia. Picking a manager with a resumé of supporting murderous regimes is itself a revelation about the amoral values of Trump’s campaign.

Denial doesn’t work for long, so the next recourse of public plagiarizers is a series of hastily constructed stories about how the copying happened. Before she gave the speech, Melania said, “I wrote it with as little help as possible.” But Donald Trump Jr. blamed unnamed speechwriters who “should've cleaned it up better”. Then it turned out that many paragraphs had been written by Paul Scully, who had drafted Sarah Palin’s 2008 convention speech. Later, Meredith McIver, who described herself as “an in-house staff writer at the Trump Organization”, who helped Trump write some of his books, seemed to offer the real story. Melania admired Michelle Obama and had “read me some passages from Mrs. Obama’s speech. I wrote them down and later included some phrasing in the draft that ultimately became the final speech.” This wasn’t the first time that McIver took the blame for a Trump falsehood. Trump himself blamed her in 2007 for overstating his wealth in his books.

Strike three. Her story is hard to believe. I have taken notes while interviewing people over the phone, and it’s nearly impossible to write down long passages and reproduce them word-for-word. We’ll probably never know the truth about exactly how the plagiarism developed. We do know that Melania is no stranger to lies: she dropped out of the University of Ljubljana after one year, but claimed on her website that she earned a degree in architecture and design. The Republican National Convention program repeats the lie.

The varying stories put out by the Trump campaign about the speech typify the complete disinterest in truth that is central to Trump’s entire life. To be fair, most political campaigns try to minimize potential problems by telling lies.

But there is more to this story than lying by the Trump campaign. Melania realized something that escapes the Republican Party, all those Convention delegates who shouted “Lock her up” about Hillary Clinton, and her husband Donald. Americans of both parties share the most basic ideas and values.

Michelle Obama’s family values are so much like Melania’s that Melania could make Michelle’s exact words her own. When expressing her deepest and most personal feelings, a white immigrant fashion model from Slovenia could channel a black American lawyer. Without blinking an eye, Melania bridged the divide between conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats on an issue usually used as a wedge between the parties, family values.

I can’t excuse Melania’s plagiarism nor the Trump campaign’s lies about how her speech was created. I don’t think she was trying to end the cultural war waged by Republicans against “liberals” whom they routinely accuse of destroying American families. Perhaps in spite of herself, Melania Trump gave the lie to that decades-long campaign and pointed the way to a better American politics. Too bad her husband wasn’t listening.

Steve Hochstadt
Carle Place, New York
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, July 26, 2016

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The Logistics of Retirement

After a long working life, I took a nap the other day. It wasn’t a day off or a weekend or a vacation. It was a midweek, I’m-sleepy-now afternoon nap. That’s retirement.

According to the Social Security Administration, I’ve been employed for 50 years. That means getting paid by an employer who determined what hours I worked and what work I did. Somebody else decided where I worked, what equipment I could use, what my wages were, and whether my work was good enough. Now that’s over and I’m on my own.

Retirement turns out to be a matter of complex and, for me, unexpected logistics. These logistical problems come from the new questions that retirement asks.

Whatever workplace you had must be transformed, mainly by removing all of your stuff. Whether it’s a workbench or studio or desk or office, that throws a new decision at you: where should this work stuff go? Maybe it’s work-family stuff, like photos. They’re not so easy to deal with. Bring them home and put them where? Find new places or move the stuff on the walls now. What about the varied tools of your trade, books or screwdrivers or files or pens? Why save them when they will probably not be used again? But how hard it is to get rid of them.

Those are minor issues compared to the major life choices that retirement brings. Where should I live? Retirement doesn’t mean that you move your home base, but it does free you from needing to show up at work every day except for occasional vacations. Suddenly you can go visiting for weeks at a time (if they’ll have you), take long trips, or enjoy a family property far away. If you go away for more than a week, what do you do with your pets? your mail? your bills? For each new opportunity that retirement provides, along come new logistical issues to be faced.

Those are examples of how the end of working, meaning paid employment, changes everything. Most people will receive Social Security benefits for which we have been paying our entire working lives. Medicare will now become a central element of health insurance. Both require an application and some key decisions. When should benefits begin? Is Medicare sufficient or should supplemental insurance be purchased? Which plan is best?

Each of these questions involves complex decisions based on guesswork: how healthy am I? how long will I live? do I need long-term care insurance? how much health insurance can I afford?

These are just a sample of the logistical decisions which seem to suddenly come up at the moment of retirement. They take time and effort to work out. But I think another set of decisions is even more important and more difficult. Retirement brings up uncomfortable emotional and psychological uncertainties, because it is such a major life change.

What about naps? I have found it hard to grasp what it means that I no longer have to accomplish work every day. Behavior that meant laziness and avoidance, like sleeping late or taking a nap, now mean something else, because there is much less pressure to accomplish something. So why get up in the morning? We don’t have to confront life’s ultimate question of purpose to realize that a smaller question will come up every morning: what is my purpose today? There certainly are a lot of things that I could do that are interesting and fun. But reading the newspaper, digging in the garden, or going out for coffee don’t accomplish anything that anyone else cares about. Nothing moves forward. Fun is not an easy substitute for work when we have been engaged by work for half a century.

Work accomplishes things for other people. That’s why they pay us. Suddenly we can focus on ourselves. The people who wanted our work don’t want it any more. Others have taken our places, and we’re left to amuse ourselves.

I’m not complaining. The lack of deadlines, the absence of pressure to accomplish anything in particular today, is a wonderful liberation. I can do anything I want, or nothing at all. But the shift in perspective is not easy to negotiate.

Maybe I should just take a nap.

Steve Hochstadt
Springbrook WI
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, July 19, 2016

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The Moral Majority is Dead



The Moral Majority was founded in 1979 by Baptist televangelist Jerry Falwell and conservative political activist Paul Weyrich. Falwell moved against the traditional Baptist separation of religion and politics, because he said he was concerned about the moral decay of America. Eventually the organization was incorporated into a larger conservative Christian group, the Liberty Foundation, and officially disbanded in 1989. Falwell proclaimed, “Our goal has been achieved…The religious right is solidly in place and … religious conservatives in America are now in for the duration.”

Falwell was hardly a model for modern American politics. He blamed the 9-11 attacks on domestic political opponents. "I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America. I point the finger in their face and say 'you helped this happen.'" Pat Robertson said he completely agreed with Falwell. Falwell said that the AIDS epidemic was “God's punishment for homosexuals”, one of this major themes. In 1977, he asserted, “so-called gay folks would just as soon kill you as look at you.” He predicted in 1999 that the Antichrist would arrive within ten years and “of course he'll be Jewish”.

The so-called Moral Majority themselves were never what they claimed to be. Conservative Protestants are more likely to divorce than other Americans. Evangelical teenagers are more likely to have premarital sex than other Christians or Jews. Women are more likely to be killed by men in the conservative South than anywhere else. Like Falwell himself, the so-called moral majority were less concerned with morality than with promoting conservative politics by attacking liberals.

Now the moralists of the right are confronted by a conservative candidate who is anything but moral. Trump had an extramarital affair with Marla Maples before his divorce from Ivana Trump. He had little to do with his daughter with Maples. Trump’s public life in business and politics models the opposite of the Golden Rule – do unto others only that which benefits me.

Yet Trump has been treated as a hero by Falwell’s Liberty University, and Falwell’s son compared Trump to his father. Trump defeated his Republican rivals by winning among evangelical voters.

There is little new here. Newt Gingrich was popular with Christian conservatives in the 2012 campaign. Yet he had multiple affairs. After cheating on his first wife, he brought up divorce proceedings to her while she was in the hospital recovering from cancer surgery. He cheated on his second wife while he was trying to get Bill Clinton impeached for his behavior with Monica Lewinsky and proclaiming the importance of “family values”.

Leaders of the Christian right are divided about Trump. A number have pointed out his moral failings in the starkest terms. The Christian Post, which had never taken a position on a political candidate, editorialized in February that Trump is “a misogynist and philanderer”, who prefers “insults, obscenities and untruths”, whose “questionable business practices” have defrauded working Americans, and who is “unfit to be president.”

Russell Moore, public policy spokesman for the Southern Baptist Convention, wrote in February about Trump’s “spewing of profanities in campaign speeches, race-baiting and courting white supremacists, boasting of adulterous affairs, debauching public morality and justice through the casino and pornography industries.”

In May, the two warring wings of Republican religious conservatism wrote conflicting messages to their national constituencies. A long list of Christian church leaders used an open letter to detail Trump’s offenses against morality, and said, “Donald Trump directly promotes racial and religious bigotry, disrespects the dignity of women, harms civil public discourse, offends moral decency, and seeks to manipulate religion.”

David Lane, the leader of the American Renewal organization, wrote an email to 100,000 pastors supporting Trump. Lane’s message was not about morality, but politics, focusing on “political correctness” and the danger of progressives on the Supreme Court. Lane’s email showed the confusion of the religious right. He prophesied that “Donald Trump can be one of the top four presidents in American history”, but admitted that “I don't have a clue” about what Trump will actually do.

Religion and politics don’t mix well. The claim that conservatism was inherently more moral than liberalism was always merely another political argument. Now that Donald Trump has forced conservatives to choose between moral behavior and political convenience, most Republicans, voters and political leaders, have shelved their moral consciences in favor of their politics. The Moral Majority is dead because it never really existed.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, July 12, 2016

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Food is Important



One of my T-shirts says, “Food is important.” I got it at the Lincoln Cafe in Mt. Vernon, Iowa, where they served great food.

That’s no political slogan, and it is more than a local advertising gimmick. Everyone mentions the T-shirt when I wear it because it tells a simple truth.

Food is important to everyone. Every faith transforms food into a sacrament. The barrage of food commercials on TV is relentless. As many as 50 million Americans don’t know where their next meal is coming from.

Because food is important, it is politically important. I didn’t know much about the national politics of food in America before I came to Illinois. But there are lots of struggles over food where I lived in New England, foods that people around here rarely think about, like lobster. Those dangerous but tasty creatures lie at the center of wide-ranging political discussions: how many lobster traps should one boat be able to put out? what should be done about the migration of lobsters northward because of the warming of the oceans?

The politics of food in the Midwest involves much more money and political clout. The scale of agriculture in Illinois is staggering. Hardly any place in the world is like Illinois, which ranks first in the nation in total processed food sales, in the volume of ethanol produced, and in soybean production.

For his insider’s experience and skeptical writing about how all the big food players make food into a political commodity, I thank Alan Guebert, whose syndicated column “The Farm and Food File” has appeared across the country since 1993.

Food is political because the 10 largest food companies in the United States control more than half of all food sales domestically. Food is political because the interests of industrial agriculture of the Midwest and South are not the same as the smaller, more diversified farming of the Northeast or ranching in the West. Decisions must be made about how to balance the interests of chemical farming vs. organic farming, or farming for animal feed and ethanol vs. fruits and vegetables.

Hired farm workers connect issues of immigration, poverty and food production. The 1 million hired farm workers are among the most economically disadvantaged groups in the United States. One half of hired crop farm workers are not legally authorized to work in the US. Two-thirds were born in Mexico. They’re here because agribusiness hires them. Deport them and we’ll all go hungry.

We should thank ourselves for the role that our government has played to protect our food from the poisons, pesticides, additives, insects, dirt and rot that many food businesses used to put in our food. We should thank ourselves for the democratic work behind the federal government’s role in insuring that our food is properly labeled. The 1950 Oleomargarine Act is an example of why that’s important. It required margarine makers to stop pretending they were selling butter. We should thank our system of government for limiting pesticide residues, banning dangerous dietary supplements, and stepping in often when food products make people sick. Free unregulated enterprise has often been bad for our food and our health.

But government’s heavy hand on our dinner plate is not always healthy. We all know what we should eat: fruits and vegetables should be about half of our diet. But fruit and vegetable farming receives less than 1% of the billions in agricultural subsidies that the federal government gives out. Corn and other grains get 61%.

Republican food policy in the current Congress has been mainly directed at preventing the labeling of food with GMOs, genetically modified organisms. In the House, Republicans passed a bill which would prevent states from adopting explicit labeling laws. So much for states’ rights. Democrats in the Senate blocked the bill from passing.

Food politics are world-wide and require expertise and understanding, not just deal-making. How will Brexit affect our food industry?

Lots of Donald Trump supporters live in agricultural America. But the only things Trump has said about food was when he used his political campaign to advertise foods with his name on them – Trump wine, Trump steaks (which weren’t real because they didn’t sell), Trump water. The closest Trump gets to the countryside is at one of his golf courses. People have gotten their pants dirty for Trump since he was a boy. Is this the person to lead American food policy?

The Gulf of Maine is warming up faster than any other part of the world’s oceans. Saying global warming is a hoax tells Maine lobster fishers that the government doesn’t care about them, or Maine’s economy, or those who eat lobster. Let them eat steak.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, July5, 2016

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

There is no WE in TRUMP



It is impossible not to be fascinated by Donald Trump’s focus on himself. You can’t write anything new about his egotism, his bragging and re-bragging, his historical fantasies where he plays the star, because it’s all been done so often.

So let’s take that as a given. When Donald Trump talks or writes books or sends Tweets, he can’t stop talking about himself in ways unique to him. “I will be so good at the military your head will spin.”

Every president and presidential candidate is an egotist, believing that the whole country should vote for them to hold the highest office. No other person matches the power, the attention from the whole world, the gravity of the American President. The Presidents I have seen have all been judged by their character as much as by their political success. The character of our possible leader is one of our most important political questions.

American presidents have never become The Leader, Il Duce or Der Führer. The system of checks and balances is a big idea that high school kids must learn about American government. The founders knew no models to teach them about separation of powers or national democracy. They made them both up and they’re still working.

Perhaps not working so well now. Yet the political struggle between a Republican Congress and a Democratic President over the past 21 years has led neither to economic disaster nor military intervention nor coups d’état. The closest we have come to national breakdown were the two government shutdowns by the new Republican majority against President Clinton in the fall of 1995. It happened again against Barack Obama in 2013. Most Americans rejected these shutdowns and blamed the Republicans.

The Republican Congressional refusal to consider President Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court is symptomatic of the current deadlock, but also of the importance of the Supreme Court as the appointed adjudicator for these fundamental disputes. The Supreme Court acts independently of the other two branches, and can stop them both in their tracks. No other country has lived for so long under such a system of separated and balanced powers.

We need to be sure that a President has the temperament, the character, and the spirit to be one leader among many, to seek consensus, to stay within the rules which make the President one of three co-equal powers.

Donald Trump has shown only disdain for our system. No candidate for President has ever personally insulted so many people in government as Trump. Trump’s insults show no respect for the other players in the political process, neither legislators nor judges.

Late-night comics are amused by Trump’s constant refrain that he is the best at everything. But that kind of fantastic self-esteem, superiority in every way, and contempt for what anyone else has to offer will not long abide sharing power, being thwarted, being criticized, being out-smarted by other political actors.

Trump scorns democracy as weakness. He mocks the inability of both Republicans and Democrats to break through their stalemate with some powerful stroke. They’re all stupid for not being able to do what he does all the time – lay down the law. Trump’s idea of leadership is strength. His epithets for other politicians are all about stupidity and weakness.

And who is Trump’s model leader? Vladimir Putin. In September, Trump told Bill O’Reilly, “I will tell you that I think in terms of leadership, he's getting an A, and our President is not doing so well.” On MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” in December, he was asked about the connections between Putin and the murder of journalists and political opponents. “He’s running his country, and at least he’s a leader, unlike what we have in this country. . . . our country does plenty of killing, too.” In the March 3 Republican debate, he denied that he had expressed admiration for Putin at all: “Wrong, wrong, wrong.” A week later, in the next debate, he said, “I think Putin’s been a very strong leader for Russia, he’s been a lot stronger than our leader, that I can tell you.”

What has Putin done as Russia’s leader? His troops invaded neighboring Ukraine and shot down a Malaysian passenger plane. The ruble has lost half its value against the dollar in the past two years. The national economy contracted by 4% in 2015, and it’s worse this year. The Russian stock market has lost two-thirds of its value since 2007.

The American government considers Russia to be “a corrupt, autocratic kleptocracy centered on the leadership of Vladimir Putin, in which officials, oligarchs and organized crime are bound together to create a virtual mafia state”, according to secret communications leaked by WikiLeaks. Russia’s entire track and field team has now been banned from the Rio Olympics because of their national policy of doping and deception.

Putin turned Russia’s young democracy into a one-party state with a puppet legislature and heavy censorship. Maybe what Trump especially likes is the cult of personality that Putin has created for himself.

Putin has been a disaster for Russia and a danger to the world. Trump thinks he’s great. He would be a disaster for our balanced democracy.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, June 21, 2016