Tuesday, July 3, 2018

The Mephistopheles President

The legend of humans making a bargain with the Devil is a thousand years old, dating back to the story of Theophilus of Adana, who supposedly signed a blood pact with the Devil to become a bishop. Theophilus regretted this deal, and by fasting and praying gained the intercession of the Virgin Mary to regain his soul. Since the 16th century, German writers have produced many versions of the story of Dr. Faust and Mephistopheles, the most famous of which is the play by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, completed in 1832. His Faust seeks worldly knowledge and sensual pleasure, ruining the life of the innocent Gretchen. He is also saved from damnation by the Goddess, representing eternal womanhood.

The conflict between profane success and moral integrity, represented as a human choice between Satan and heaven, was worked into countless tales in many languages. Oscar Wilde published “The Picture of Dorian Gray” in 1890, portraying moral degradation as transforming the painting of Gray. American versions are the short stories “The Devil and Tom Walker” by Washington Irving in 1824, and “The Devil and Daniel Webster” by Stephen Vincent Benét in 1936. In Benét’s tale, the courtroom arguments of Daniel Webster save the farmer Jabez Stone, who had bargained his soul for prosperity.

The Faust theme was even written into a baseball novel by Douglass Wallop in 1954, “The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant”, where the Devil helps the Washington Senators defeat the dominant Yankees. “Damn Yankees” brought this story to Broadway the next year.

I think this bargain describes the modern plight of many American Christians, especially evangelical Christians, who have made a deal with Trump – you give us political policies we want and we will accept your anti-Christian character.

Many Republicans have condemned Trump’s character in the harshest terms. During the Presidential campaign, the National Review said Trump was “a huckster” and “a menace to American conservatism”. Other conservatives said he was a charlatan, an American Mussolini, a louse, a tapeworm, the very epitome of vulgarity. Michael Gerson, an evangelical speechwriter for George W. Bush, calls Trump “the least traditionally Christian figure—in temperament, behavior, and evident belief—to assume the presidency in living memory.” David Brooks used the Faust comparison right after Trump’s inauguration.

Trumps’ perverse sexual behavior, about which he has openly bragged, his defrauding of students at Trump University, his use of his “charitable” foundation for personal enrichment, all exemplify his character. He has never shown the slightest adherence to Christian principles and publicly stated his disinterest in Christian virtues, such as humility, forgiveness and repentance. He lies every day and admits it.

The evils represented by Trump are indelibly displayed in his policy of breaking up immigrant families: deciding to start an entirely new policy of separating parents and children; falsely blaming others for his and his administration’s decisions; saying he can’t do anything about it and then stopping it. Yet evangelical leaders and voters have tied their political fortunes to him, because he offers his Presidential help in their political crusades.

Trump did not suddenly lead evangelicals astray. For years they have ignored universal messages about the importance of helping the poor and the unfortunate, and about welcoming the stranger. But they still proclaimed themselves to be morally vigilant. White evangelicals were the most critical of political leaders who “committed immoral personal acts”: in 2011, only 30% said such a person “can behave ethically” in office, less than any other religious or political group. Since Trump came on the scene, nearly half of American evangelical Protestants have changed their minds about morality and politics: just before the 2016 election, 72% said this was possible, more than any other group.

Instead of acting like a religion, firmly based on timeless values of moral thought and behavior, American evangelicalism now resembles a cult. Conservatives who support Trump, like Rick Santorum, and who oppose him, like Senator Bob Corker, both recently talked of a personality cult around Trump. A year ago, Jerry Falwell, Jr., said, “I think evangelicals have found their dream president.”

Not all evangelicals have made this devilish bargain with Trump. 28% of evangelical Protestants identified as Democrats in a 2014 survey. The Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the US, resolved last year “That we denounce and repudiate white supremacy and every form of racial and ethnic hatred as a scheme of the devil.” Their new president, Pastor J. D. Greear, has moved the SBC away from identification with the Republican Party.

W.W. Jacobs’ 1902 story “The Monkey’s Paw” reveals the poisonous gifts that black magic can bestow. Trump’s promise that he will allow churches to engage in partisan politics is precisely the kind of bargain that devils make.

Have evangelical Trump supporters bargained away their souls?

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
June 29, 2018

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

How to Uncover Secrets

Giant institutions often violate their own rules and our laws, and hurt, or even kill people in the process. They use powerful offices or connections to them, unlimited money, and threats of retaliation to keep us ignorant of their illegal actions. Individuals who get in their way are bought off or crushed.

There are big secrets in America, which we ought to know about, for our own good. Some Americans say they are worried by a “deep state”. But these are the same people who defend Joseph McCarthy and the national witch hunt against people they didn’t like. The same people who disdain today’s FBI, but said nothing when the FBI illegally attacked citizens in the 1960s. The same people who reject the work of those, like Robert Mueller, who now professionally investigate America’s most important secrets. These people propagate stories about big secrets without evidence and assail those who try to reveal and understand them. Their “deep state” stories are vacuous.

The most relentless, most objective, most principled, and most experienced investigator of America’s secrets is our free press. McCarthy’s unmasking was accomplished by Murrey Marder of the Washington Post, whose daily articles recorded his every action for four years. Marder’s reporting brought about the Army-McCarthy hearings, the first Congressional hearings to be televised live nationally.

Newspaper reporting brought us the most significant revelations about our government’s secrets. The Pentagon Papers published by the Washington Post revealed the truth about the Vietnam War. The Watergate stories by Woodward and Bernstein brought down a dishonest President.

Newspaper reporting uncovers the hidden mechanisms which make some people’s lives more difficult. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s 1989 series “The Color of Money” documented the systematic racial discrimination in housing using redlining. Last year, the finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in Investigative Reporting included the exposé of violence and neglect in Florida mental hospitals; a series by Michael J. Berens and Patricia Callahan of the Chicago Tribune documenting official neglect and abuse leading to 42 deaths at Illinois group homes for developmentally disabled adults; and Steve Reilly’s investigation for USA Today Network in Tysons Corner, VA, of 9,000 teachers across the nation who should have been flagged for past disciplinary offenses, but were not. The list of winners of the Pulitzer Prize gives us dozens of examples of how important American newspapers are to our understanding of what goes on around us that we can’t see.

Journalists have used their skills and resources to uncover historical secrets, such as 24-year-old Sara Ganim of the Harrisburg Patriot-News, who disclosed the child molestation allegations against Jerry Sandusky months before other news organizations.

The resistance of secret-keepers can be powerful. The film “Spotlight” shows how difficult it was for the Boston Globe to put together scattered and hidden evidence into the story about widespread child abuse by Catholic priests. The documentary “Fear and Favor in the Newsroom” shows how media owners and board members try to censor stories revealing corporate wrong-doing.

But we need to know stories about the perverse sexual history of Roy Moore, who was running for Senate in Alabama; about Harvey Weinstein’s decades of abusing women in the film industry; and about the large number of children who are killed or injured by guns.
Reporting the news means telling citizens what they would not otherwise know.”

Getting news from newspapers is slower and less exciting than the bombardment of “breaking news” on TV, but more accurate, more objective, and more useful. Commercial TV stations have far fewer news reporters than local newspapers do. Nearly all stories on local news stations reported on accidents, crimes, and scheduled or staged events.

Social media and smart phones have not killed newspapers, but print journalism has been in decline for a long time. The number of newspaper editorial employees has fallen from more than 60,000 in 1992 to around 40,000 in 2009. The number of newspaper staff reporters covering the state capitols full time dropped 30% from 2003 to 2009.

Newspapers are capitalist enterprises run by the richest Americans. But conservatives hate them. Why? Because they are the most dangerous foes of secret-keepers, and today’s conservatives are desperately trying to hide their biggest secret – they are protecting an incompetent, dishonest and dangerous leader.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, June 26, 2018

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

My Fellow Americans!

I have little in common with millions of you. We like different drinks, root for different teams, watch different shows and vote differently. 325 million Americans, and our lives and choices almost never touch.

But we do one important thing together: we vote every two years for people to govern us from Washington. They make laws, conduct foreign negotiations and foreign wars, and enforce policies that affect all of us together, theoretically equally. So at this moment, I care about what all of you do.

I care about your votes, because I want the air I breathe and the water I drink to be safe. That seems like our most basic right. We know that we can’t just trust big corporations to put our health in front of their profits, so we need government to insure that they don’t dump dangerous chemicals into our environment. But the Environmental Protection Agency has now decided to ignore health hazards caused by the presence of the most toxic chemicals in the air, ground or water. For example, when the EPA analyzes the risks of the dry-cleaning solvent perchloroethylene, all it will test are hazards for those who directly handle it. The fact that that chemical occurs in drinking water in 44 states, because of unsafe disposal, will not be evaluated. This EPA decision is a direct result of the national vote in 2016.

I care about your votes, because I want our politicians to be good human beings, thoughtful, knowledgeable, honest people. Some of the candidates on the ballot in November will be nothing like that. Across the country, candidates with despicable views or despicable behavior have been getting hundreds of thousands of votes. In Alabama, Roy Moore, who refused to enforce our laws and had to be removed twice from the Alabama Supreme Court, and who is a despicable person besides, nearly won a US Senate seat. Twenty thousand people in Illinois’ 3rd Congressional District voted in the primary for Arthur Jones, a neo-Nazi and Holocaust denier. Don Blankenship of West Virginia went to jail, because 29 men died in an explosion in one of his company’s mines in 2010, but he got 20% of primary votes. We don’t have to vote for the worst human beings.

I care about your votes, because I depend on professional media to inform me about the world, the same media that many politicians say represents “fake news”. Voting for them means moving our national politics even further away from facts to propaganda. While trust in the mass media has fallen somewhat over the past 20 years, some voters have basically given up entirely on the nation’s most professional sources of news: less than 14% of Republicans have a “fair amount” of trust in the mass media. How else can we decide who is the best candidate?

I care about your votes, because only government can solve some of our most pressing problems: widespread poverty, pollution, continuing discrimination against minorities and women. But government can’t solve our problems if Americans don’t vote for good candidates. If we are just left to individual action, if we have no counterweight to the self-interested decisions of giant corporations or of the richest, most powerful people, our communities will suffer.

But today less than one-third of Americans believe that government officials are credible. Among the 28 countries surveyed by Edelman for its Trust Barometer, the college-educated “informed public” in the US ranks last in trust of our institutions. Just one year ago, the US was among the international leaders in trust for our institutions, with 68% expressing trust; now it’s only 45%. Trust in our institutions dropped from 2017 to 2018 more than in any other country. Only we, the voters, can do something to reverse this trend. Only we can find and vote for trustworthy people who will create a trustworthy government.

It’s more complicated than just avoiding Nazis. We must seek out people who demonstrate compassion for all Americans, who exemplify honesty in their personal and public lives, who seek solutions to conflicts rather than fomenting them.

How do ordinary Americans change the direction of America? The Southern Baptist Convention just showed how: they elected a young pastor as president, who urged his brethren to repent their “failure to honor women and racial minorities”. The SBC is breaking its partisan support of the Republican Party. They will change our politics, because they were willing to change their minds.

My fellow Americans, it’s up to us. We can’t magically make our country healthy again in November, but we can reverse disastrous recent trends. We can make America great again, not by being an ugly neighbor, not by trashing other nations, not by just looking out for ourselves, but by electing great Americans and encouraging them to represent the best in us.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, June 19, 2018