Monday, August 22, 2016

Of Palaces and Peasants

St. Petersburg is a city of palaces. The biggest are world famous tourist attractions. Long lines of visitors pay $30 to see Peter the Great’s palace on the outskirts of the city at Peterhof, and the Winter Palace in the center of the city, now part of the Hermitage, one of the largest art museums in the world. Both were damaged during the three-year German siege of Leningrad, and have been carefully and expensively restored.

These gigantic homes of the Russian emperors rival the most elaborate palaces of European royalty. Enormous rooms covered in gold paint, acres of inlaid wood floors, furniture created by the most famous craftsmen, chandeliers, paintings, stucco work, ceiling frescos, carved doors, marble staircases wide enough for a herd of horses.

Peterhof was a country retreat for Peter, who had St. Petersburg built to create a northern port for his Empire, so it was a moderately sized palace, about 30 rooms, stretching the length of three football fields. The throne room is 25 feet high and covers 3500 sq. ft. A special canal was built to bring visitors’ boats from the Gulf of Finland. Tsar Peter was fascinated by water, and he helped design a spectacular complex of hundreds of fountains whose water is brought by a specially built canal from springs 12 miles away. A dozen smaller palaces are scattered among acres of formal gardens.

The Winter Palace is one of the largest buildings I have ever seen. It covers 650,000 sq. ft., nearly as large as Louis XIV’s Versailles and English royalty’s Buckingham Palace. Today it houses the Hermitage museum, but the palace rooms themselves push the art objects into the background.

These two are merely the most impressive of Petersburg’s palaces. The banks of the Neva River and the smaller canals that cross St. Petersburg are lined with the gigantic constructions of the Russian nobility. Families that owned tens of thousands of acres of land and thousands of peasant serfs competed to build private homes of incredible size and opulence.

America has no such palaces. The largest homes in the United States were built by the Vanderbilt family, based on the fortune in shipping and railroads amassed by Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877). The largest is the Biltmore House in North Carolina with 250 rooms covering 180,000 sq. ft. The fabled “summer cottages” of Newport, RI, are much smaller. The largest house ever built in Chicago, Potter Palmer’s home facing Lake Michigan, would rank with the outbuildings at Peterhof.

There are no American political equivalents to the palaces of European royalty. The White House extends over 55,000 sq. ft. George Washington’s Mount Vernon (21 rooms) and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello (43 rooms) are only about 10,000 sq. ft. When the leaders of the new United States decided to create a democracy, they legislated the end of palaces and the other trappings of European royalty in favor of legal equality (for white men, at least).

The fascination of St. Petersburg’s palaces for the visitor lies in their uniqueness, their impossible magnificence, their foreign gigantism. American tourists, myself included, enjoy marveling at the exuberant ostentation of European palaces like Peterhof, partly because we can find nothing like it at home.

Palaces require much more than personal wealth. Russian emperors used funds they collected from millions of Russian peasants to construct homes that spoke of their unearthly power. Most peasants were barely able to subsist on small plots of land, but they supported the faraway royal family and the local nobles who dominated their every aspect of their lives. These wonders of human creation were built on the exploitation of the many for the few, on the assumption that some people were better than most and deserved to spend as much as they liked to demonstrate and maintain their superiority.

St. Petersburg, city of palaces, is also a city of revolution. The Romanov royal family’s exploitation of Russian peasants and workers was overthrown in 1917. The small palace of Nicholas II’s mistress, the ballerina Kshesinskaya, now houses a fine museum of the modern political history of Russia. During the revolutionary months of 1917, the Bolshevik Party took over the building and Lenin used one room as his office. After the Bolsheviks took power, most of giant homes of the Russian nobility were divided into small apartments for average citizens.

Of the largest houses in the US, more than half were built between 1882 and 1929, during the so-called Gilded Age, when giant fortunes were made, but poverty was widespread. The richest 1% owned half of the property in America. Most of the remaining enormous American homes have been constructed in the last 15 years, another period when the very rich got even richer and economic inequality has increased to levels not seen since before the Great Depression.

Palaces are impressive human creations, employing the most skilled artists to create lasting works of cultural significance. But they are also symbols of economic exploitation, as the very rich flaunt their wealth before the masses in needless but conspicuous extravagance. The very few at the top can build what they want, but they cannot control how the rest think about their greed and their ostentation.

Steve Hochstadt
Berlin, Germany
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, August 23, 2016

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Tell Your Kids Why You Like Donald

People everywhere want to treat their political leaders as ideal citizens and great people, models of personality and leadership. Character is one of the most important traits that voters look for in a candidate. Many parents are Trump supporters. Imagine telling a child about Donald Trump, as a man and as a candidate.

American presidents represent for children an image of manly achievement (thus far anyway), a dream of greatness: “One day you could be President.” When I grew up, kids learned about the President from portraits in our classrooms, surrounded by the patriotic enthusiasm of public school curricula. President and flag were one. We were sheltered from any flaws in Presidential character, lest they distract from the lesson that America was wonderful and its leaders extraordinary.

Nowadays anyone with a phone can find out the latest political news. The facts of Trump are out in the cloud for everyone, even toddlers, to see. When parents decide to support Trump, what do they say to their kids?

Parents used to teach children to be polite to others, sometimes invoking the Golden Rule. But times have changed. Now Trump parents can explain why it’s best to insult anyone who disagrees with you. Call people you don’t like liar, loser, fool, lightweight, dishonest, stupid, hypocrite, dummy, a total joke. Those are just the insults he’s thrown at leaders of his own Party.

Modesty is usually a virtue to instill in the younger generation. Not any more. Bragging is the new humility. Trump has made talking about Trump into an art form. Tell your kids: it’s all about you, every day, every way.

Bragging brings us to lying, because for Trump they’re the same. Much of what he repeatedly praises about himself is not true: that he graduated first at Wharton, that he is worth $10 billion, that he met Putin. “They love me” is one of his favorite refrains, especially about groups of people who actually dislike him.

Explain how lying can be a useful life strategy. No matter how big the lie, some people will believe it. The lesson for kids is how to use lying to win.

The most important values to pass on are family values, meaning “traditional” marriage for Republicans. Trump multiplies that lesson: many marriages are better. Marry Ivana when she’s 28, start an affair with Marla when she’s in her late 20's, marry her, then have an affair with Melania at age 28. Boys, keep looking for those 10's.

In particular, Trump moms will need to explain to their daughters why women’s bodies are their most important attributes. When considering running for President in 2000, he said, “I think the only difference between me and the other candidates is that I’m more honest and my women are more beautiful.” While he was married to Ivana, but dating Marla, he said, “You know, it really doesn’t matter what the media write, as long as you’ve got a young and beautiful piece of ass.” That phrase about women is one of Trump’s favorites.

Boys and girls, here’s the scoop on fatherhood. “I mean, I won’t do anything to take care of them. I’ll supply funds and she’ll take care of the kids. It’s not like I’m gonna be walking the kids down Central Park.”

One constant in American politics is respect for military service. Our children are constantly given messages, in school and out, that military service represents the highest form of patriotism and that veterans are heroes. Now Trump parents will need to explain that being captured and tortured, as Senator John McCain was, doesn’t make you a hero. It’s better for kids to get real military experience without risking their lives, like Trump, who went to an expensive military-themed prep school, where he got “more training militarily than a lot of the guys that go into the military.” He compared avoiding a sexually transmitted disease during his “dangerous” life as a single man to serving in Vietnam: “It is my personal Vietnam. I feel like a great and very brave soldier.”

Donald Trump thinks his privileged civilian life is just like military service. That’s why he believes, “I’ll be so good at the military, it will make your head spin.” Trump parents now have an easier time counseling their children on how to be brave soldiers: you can either join the military or fool around at home.

That’s the lesson for the kids: a life of wealth is as hard as it gets. So get rich, really rich, by saying anything that helps you, ignore all the inferior people who don’t “love you”, hit back harder, cruder, meaner when anyone points that out, tell everyone at every opportunity how great you are. It’s a tough life, but that’s the way to be.

If Trump parents help their children see what life is really all about, we might look forward to a generation Trump. So go ahead, Trump fans, put a sign in your yard that proclaims your allegiance to this man. Then start working on those explanations for your children.

Steve Hochstadt
Springbrook WI
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, August 9, 2016

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Back In Time At My 50th Reunion

I went to my 50th Carle Place High School reunion on Long Island last month. The weekend’s events covered the whole arc of my life. I talked with a third-grade classmate about the mystery novel we tried to write in the back of the classroom, and pondered retirement with many friends. I saw the town I grew up in with another half-century of development.

High school reunions are always about nostalgia. Wasn’t it great when we won that game, played a trick on that teacher, went out on that date? Even the bad moments have attained the gloss of memory: the pain of teenage heartbreak, boredom in class, and undeserved detention faded long ago.

This reunion was more than self-indulgent fantasies about perfect childhoods. It was a series of life lessons.

Social popularity might be the most important currency of high school life. Fifty years later, it’s easy to see the disconnect between teenage popularity and lifetime success. I met again some people I barely remembered, because we had exchanged only superficial pleasantries back in school. They had done wonderful things with their lives, aged gracefully, told fine stories, and smiled a lot. The superficialities of good hair or good dance moves had meant little over the long term, compared with good values and good heart.

I was struck by the importance of luck in life. A friend a few years younger had a difficult and impoverished childhood and was underestimated by most people who knew him, physically tough but probably going nowhere. He and his wife of many decades quietly built an organization serving foster children as he educated himself in the science of social services. Then they won the lottery and have become philanthropists serving children with their good fortune. But luck was only a means to generous ends they had developed long ago.

For others, luck had not been on their side. In high school, everybody seems to be healthy. Several classmates gave their lives in Vietnam, still remembered, now mourned again. A larger group have died during these 50 years, struck by diseases they didn’t expect and could not prevent. A couple of my very athletic friends were now hobbled by diseases, but bravely pushed on. I was struck by their courage and by my own good luck, unearned but appreciated every day.

I grew up in what seemed like the quintessential suburbia on Long Island, cookie-cutter houses built by William Levitt, pioneer in mass-produced affordable housing after World War II. Virtually every house in my school district was built between 1948 and 1950 on a former farm. Young families moved out from New York City. The GI Bill gave low-cost mortgages to veterans like my father. I grew up on streets where nearly every house had kids, ready to join Cub Scouts, play ball, and walk to school. Crime was throwing snowballs at passing cars. At our reunion, we all marveled at how easy it was to grow up in Carle Place.

If you were white. It took me years to realize that there were no blacks in my town. Housing segregation in suburbia was common in postwar America, but Mr. Levitt, a Jew, was particularly racist. He barred Jews from his first development on Long Island, refused to sell to blacks and even barred resales to blacks. He fought right up to the Supreme Court to keep his developments all white. My idyllic childhood was denied to African Americans. Benefits for veterans were also denied to blacks: of the first 67,000 mortgages insured by the GI Bill, less than 100 went to non-whites.

My classmates and I got a fine start in life, allowing us to make the most of our talents and our luck. We didn’t realize our good fortune was built on discrimination and exclusion. That lesson is hard to learn.

Steve Hochstadt
Springbrook WI
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, August 2, 2016

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