Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Democracy Demands Wisdom In Its Citizens

I have been working for a few years on a project about the history of race relations in Jacksonville, Illinois. Unlike the surrounding towns, and most of the country, Jacksonville’s residents promoted very progressive ideas about racial equality since the town’s founding in 1825. Jacksonville was nationally known in the 19th century for liberal race relations, for promotion of women’s education, and for its concentration of educational institutions and intellectual achievement. During the 20th century, Jacksonville’s fading significance buried these remarkable achievements in forgetfulness. I hope to rediscover what made this little town on the frontier so unusual.

To support this local historical project, I applied for a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The NEH is a federal agency that supports humanities projects in every state, meaning projects in history, literature, law, and other fields which fulfill the general guidelines of the law which created it in 1965: “the study and application of the humanities to the human environment with particular attention to reflecting our diverse heritage, traditions, and history”. In that legislation, the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act, which also created the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), Congress offered some basic ideas about the nature of our democracy.

“The Congress hereby finds and declares – (1) that the encouragement and support of national progress and scholarship in the humanities and the arts, while primarily a matter for private and local initiative, is also an appropriate matter of concern to the Federal Government; (2)  that a high civilization must not limit its efforts to science and technology alone but must give full value and support to the other great branches of man’s scholarly and cultural activity; (3) that democracy demands wisdom and vision in its citizens ...; (4) that it is necessary and appropriate for the Federal Government to complement, assist, and add to programs for the advancement of the humanities and the arts by local, state, regional, and private agencies and their organizations; (5) that ... it is necessary and appropriate for the Federal Government to help create and sustain not only a climate encouraging freedom of thought, imagination, and inquiry but also the material conditions facilitating the release of this creative talent”.

The budget of the NEH totals about $150 million per year. Adjusted for inflation, that amount has been stable for the past 20 years, through Democratic and Republican Presidents and Congresses. About $43 million of that total goes yearly to the humanities councils of the 50 states, to distribute as they wish. Spending for the NEH costs each American less than 50 cents a year.

What do we get for that? The NEH website lists the most famous recipients, who won Pulitzer prizes and whose books were published with great fanfare. Most grants go to lesser known people. In Illinois, 14 faculty received grants in 2016 to support their research for one year. Money was given to the Chicago History Museum, the American Institute of Indian Studies, and the Field Museum of Natural History. Like many small and mid-sized museums across the country, the Elmhurst Historical Museum got $1000 to bring a traveling exhibitions to small-town America. The Naperville Heritage Society received support for a local history project.

I once served on a panel to decide NEH awards for history projects. We read many detailed applications, then met to find consensus on the best. That meant those applications for the most interesting projects where applicants appeared most likely to carry them to completion. Politics meant nothing, only quality of application.

The budget proposal made last week by the Trump administration completely eliminates funding for the NEH and the NEA. The Defense Department plans to buy over 2000 new F-35 supersonic warplanes in the coming decades and just announced an agreement with Lockheed Martin for 90 of these jets at $95 million per plane. Just one and half of these planes would pay the entire NEH budget.

The budget proposal foresees a $2 billion down payment on the border wall against Mexico. There are many estimates for total cost of the Wall. Senator Mitch McConnell says $12 to $15 billion, while a Department of Homeland Security internal report puts the cost at over $20 billion. Taking even the conservative estimate, those funds would keep the NEH in business for 100 years.

But this is not really about money. Conservative politicians have opposed using federal funds to support the humanities and the arts since the beginning. In 1965, Democrats overwhelmingly voted to create the NEH and the NEA, with nearly all of the Democratic “no” votes coming from the South. A majority of Republicans voted “no”.

Conservative Republican politicians don’t believe that “democracy demands wisdom and vision in its citizens”. They attack the findings of geology, evolutionary biology, and climate science. They support the spread of fake news and promote alternative facts. They disparage the media in general. There is nothing new about the attacks on truth and knowledge by the Trump administration except its shamelessness.

Let’s go back to the words of the Congress in 1965, a time when Americans also wanted our country to be great. “The world leadership which has come to the United States cannot rest solely upon superior power, wealth, and technology, but must be solidly founded upon worldwide respect and admiration for the Nation’s high qualities as a leader in the realm of ideas and of the spirit”.

Steve Hochstadt
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, March 21, 2017

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

All the Bad News That’s Fit to Print

A quiet Saturday morning, reading the newspapers that have piled up during the week. As is true everywhere, the news that gets printed is mostly bad.

Here’s an article about prostitution in Europe, where laws regulating sex for money differ from nation to nation. It turns out that in countries where the laws are the most generous for the women involved, there is more human trafficking of unwilling women from Eastern Europe and Africa, thousands per year, smuggled across borders, forced into prostitution.

Here’s a long article about how collective farms in East Germany were dissolved into private property after the fall of the Wall in 1989 and the unification of Germany. Many, perhaps most farmers whose land, tools, and animals had been taken by the Communist state in the 1950s to be agglomerated into collective farms received much less in this redistribution than they originally owned. The local big shots, especially collective farm managers, used their connections and knowledge to skirt the laws and give themselves the lion’s share of collective land. Nearly 30 years later, social resentment burns quietly across the rural landscape.

On Friday, the two airports in Berlin were completely shut down by a strike of the ground crew who guide the planes in and out of the gates, and the baggage handlers who load and unload the planes. Their union asks for a raise from $10 to $11 an hour, but the employers offer 30 cents. Thousands of passengers and potential passengers are out of luck.

Germany and Turkey are engaged in a bitter argument sparked by the increasingly dictatorial politics of Turkey’s President Recep Erdoğan. The correspondent for a major German newspaper, who reported on the involvement of Erdoğan’s son-in-law in secretly supplying weapons to the terrorist Islamic State, has been arrested as a spy. Like hundreds of other journalists in Turkey, he sits in prison for doing his job. German protests have had no effect.

A short report about a group of young men who beat up another man because he is gay.

There is so much bad news and so many innocent people who are hurting. Sometimes it’s just about inevitable conflicts, where both sides have reasonable arguments, but their interests clash. Usually the better-off win. Sometimes it’s about real injustices, where bad people pursue their own greedy self-interest, not caring about what happens to others. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.

The storm of bad news from across the world delivered to us now even on our phones can be numbing. The bigger the world is, the smaller we feel. We hear more about global events, but feel less personally connected, less involved in daily realities. Another disaster, what can I do? Another injustice, another tragedy, another conflict far out of my reach. Not my fault, not my problem.

My instinct is to want to help, to try to solve the problem, to make people happy. I say instinct, because the feeling is not rational. I don’t know any of the people involved in those stories I read. I can’t even do much for the woman who sits every day at the entrance to my subway station, begging pathetically in some unknown language. Whether I give her a few coins or not, I can’t solve her problems.

Pope Francis has thought about human moral responsibilities much more clearly than most. He says, give the woman a coin when she asks, because “it’s always right” to give to someone in need. He emphasized that the giving should be accompanied by respect and compassion. See the person to whom you give, look them in the eyes.

I can’t help journalists in Turkey or farmers in eastern Germany, but I can contribute to her welfare, even if only a little bit. If I do, I’m a bit happier, and so is she. The purpose is not to make me feel good, but to recognize our ability to influence our surroundings. If we practice charity, we get better at it. We lengthen our reach an inch at a time. We climb out of self-pitying despair towards active engagement with our world. We recognize our social nature.

The ideology of individualism is strong in America. Democracy is founded on the right to be an individual, different from the crowd, able to determine our own journey. But individualism turns too easily into egotism, greed, disdain for others, everyone for themselves. We must combine the yin of individualism with the yang of altruism. What do others want? Are they as justified as I am? Can I help them rather than stand in their way?

Just asking, “what can I do?” with an open mind brings us out of ourselves and closer to others. In many cases, the answer is “nothing”. But not in every case.

I drop a coin in her cup. We are both better off. So is the world.

Steve Hochstadt
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, March 14, 2017

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

What Happened to Paris?

Speaking about terrorism at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February, Donald Trump said this, quoting his mysterious friend Jim, “a very, very substantial guy”: “I said, ‘Jim, let me ask you a question, how's Paris doing?’ ‘Paris? I don't go there any more, Paris is no longer Paris.’ That was four years, four or five years, hasn't gone there. He wouldn't miss it for anything. Now he doesn’t even think in terms of going there.”

What happened to Paris?

Although “Jim” stopped going to Paris, the number of international visitors has continued to rise every year. Paris falls behind only London as Europe’s most visited city. More people visited Paris in 2015 than New York. What happened to Paris? Nothing.

The countries of Western Europe have been our closest allies for 70 years. Along with Canada, Australia and Japan, they most closely share our fundamental political values. After Canada, the European Union is America’s biggest trading partner. Why would Trump make a gratuitous attack on Paris?

Paris endured terrible terrorist attacks in January and November 2015: 130 people were killed in November, most of them in a crowded theater. Fear of terrorism might be a reason to avoid Paris, as well as Fort Lauderdale, New York, Boston, Orlando, Dallas, and San Bernardino, just to name a few places in America where terrorists have recently attacked. That doesn’t explain why “Jim” stopped going to Paris four years ago.

Conservatives are unhappy with Europeans and often seek ways to criticize them, especially the French. When France did not support President George Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003 in the United Nations, Republican congressman Bob Ney renamed French fries in the Congressional cafeterias “Freedom fries”. More generally, the idea that liberals liked French food has been used by conservatives to characterize liberals as not manly, elitist, un-American (and they still do it!).

Most of Europe offers a model of government and society that appears decidedly un-American to conservatives. Universal health care, strong social and economic support for the less fortunate, much less economic inequality, and broad government regulations protecting consumers and the environment are fundamental elements of the social democratic systems developed and supported for decades by liberal and conservative parties in western and northern Europe. Generous policies on immigration and refugees contrast with Trump’s emphasis on building walls. The unique model of international cooperation represented by the European Union and the euro offers such a striking contrast to the American exceptionalism promoted by the Republican Party that conservatives seek every opportunity to predict the downfall of the EU and the failure of the euro.

Trump’s “America first” ideology justifies his attacks on everyone else. No major nation has been spared unprovoked criticisms based on mostly untrue “facts”. If all other countries are bad, America must be the best. But this is bigger than Trump’s crude nationalism.

It’s tempting to believe that “Jim” and Trump just made up the idea that their familiar Paris is gone in order to bolster the claim that only America is good. But there may be something more sinister behind this remark.

Paris has changed over the past few decades, as have London, Berlin, Amsterdam and the other great cities of Western Europe. They are not white any more. On the street, sitting in cafés, in the subways, you can hear many languages and see many colors. About one out of five Parisians is an immigrant. About 18% of Berliners are non-European. London has 25% born outside of Europe, and perhaps only 60% of Londoners are white. Amsterdam is even more diverse: more than half of its people do not have Dutch origin, and over one third are non-Western. Maybe “Jim”, like many of Trump’s supporters, is uncomfortable when he feels surrounded by non-whites.

Right-wing media push anti-European attitudes by making up stories about how Western European immigration policies have resulted in public insecurity. FOX News claimed in 2015 that there were hundreds of dangerous “no-go zones” in England and France, many in Paris, “neighborhoods where neither tourists nor cops dare enter”. FOX apologized publically for its “regrettable errors”, but only after a week of worldwide derision for false reporting.

More recently, Breitbart News created its own alternative facts about Germany. In January, this headline appeared on its website: “Revealed: 1,000-Man Mob Attack Police, Set Germany’s Oldest Church Alight on New Year’s Eve”. Nothing in that alarming headline was true.

Breitbart’s journalistic methods were clear from its reference to a German news article as its source. That article presented an entirely different set of events. About 1000 people gathered in the center of Dortmund to celebrate New Year’s Eve, including “families with children”. The night was generally peaceful, and the police chief said he was “provisionally satisfied” with “the peaceful course of events”. The usual New Year’s Eve fireworks were set off, some of which landed near the policemen gathered to provide security. One rocket landed in the netting covering restoration scaffolding on the church, causing a small fire which was quickly doused.

In response to international criticism, Breitbart did correct its article: the church in Dortmund is not Germany’s oldest. Otherwise, “Breitbart News stands by all other substantive facts in this article.” A few days later, Breitbart defended its original article and called the normal news outlets “fake news”. Breitbart is now preparing to open an office in Germany.

We can expect Trump and his administration to continue to condemn Europe. Both Steve Bannon and Trump’s appointee as ambassador to the European Union, Ted Malloch, have openly expressed their desire to break up the EU.

They ought to visit Paris. It’s a wonderful city, especially in the spring.

Steve Hochstadt
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, March 7, 2017