Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Je suis Charlie

The assassination in Paris of 12 people at the offices of the cartoon magazine “Charlie Hebdo” and the murder of four others at a Jewish grocery store have caused a worldwide revulsion against terror by Islamic extremists. Over one million people filled the streets of Paris a few days later to demonstrate for tolerance.

The murders were a unifying force, bringing world leaders and people of all colors and backgrounds together behind the slogan “Je suis Charlie”, “I am Charlie”. On the news, I saw people of widely disparate backgrounds speak of their support for each other and for diversity. The significant presence of Muslims, who may have been offended by the “Charlie Hebdo” cartoon but were outraged at the murders, demonstrated that the killers represent only a radical slice of Islamic belief. The absence of any high-ranking American official was an embarrassment.

I write about this because a second major issue behind the demonstration was freedom of expression. “Charlie Hebdo” was targeted because they published a cartoon mocking the Prophet Mohammed. I don’t think the mockery of other people’s religious beliefs is clever or useful, but I firmly support everyone’s freedom to write or draw whatever they want, no matter whom it offends. As soon as a government is allowed to make rules about what may not be printed, that government can effectively restrict open discussion of its policies. If a social group, majority or minority, can censor free speech, they have taken enormous power over the rest of us. The proper way to indicate disapproval of offensive writing is to say so, not to make it illegal, and certainly not to attack with violence.

I am privileged to live in a society where freedom of speech and of the press are fundamental rights. Only a minority of nations protect these freedoms.

The Paris marchers reacted to a horrible tragedy by demonstrating for something good. A more negative demonstration took place in Dresden, Germany. The political group PEGIDA, standing for Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West, has organized weekly demonstrations for several months against immigration and against non-white immigrants to Germany. PEGIDA leaders use their Facebook pages to make racist remarks about Turks in Germany. As do many conservative movements who do not like their claims and ideas to be examined too closely and publically, they are fond of the phrase L├╝genpresse, “lying press”, the German version of complaints about the “mainstream media”. Their demonstrations have provoked counter-demonstrations in support of more tolerance and diversity, usually in greater numbers.

The PEGIDA demonstrations represent the German version of a much wider European reaction against “immigrants”, which really means non-Caucasians. This continental movement promotes an extreme conservative ideology of nationality and race, often bordering on fascism. Marine le Pen leads the National Front, which has recently become the third largest party in France. She used the killings in Paris to criticize “radical Islamism”. The right-wing Party for Freedom has become the third largest party in the Netherlands under a platform opposing immigration from non-Western countries. Golden Dawn in Greece, more closely identified with the Nazis and more violent against opponents, received only 7% of the votes in 2012, but attracts much more attention than its numbers have earned.

In the advanced economies of the West, immigration of people of color from poorer regions has caused conservative backlash. Although Germans recruited Turks, and French recruited North Africans, and Americans recruited Mexicans as cheap labor after World War II, the continuing flow northward created political division as those industrial nations have experienced economic problems since the 1970s.

The conflict between President Obama and the Republican Congress over how to treat undocumented immigrants is a pale reflection of these deeper divisions in Europe. Our most radical rightists are moderated by their membership in the larger Republican Party, while in multi-party European countries, the extremists form their own smaller, but more radical parties.

But the issues are the same and they won’t go away. The absolute dominance of white majorities has been shattered by decades of immigration and by successful pressure for equal rights of existing minorities. The worldwide force of migration cannot be stopped by nostalgia for the disappearance of “traditional values”, often expressed as a cover for hatred and racism. New colorful societies are emerging. This process can be protested and fought, as in the PEGIDA marches, or it can be welcomed and celebrated, as in Paris. But it cannot be reversed or wished away.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, January 20, 2015

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

My New Year’s Resolution

A few weeks ago I wrote a column about political corruption. My essay began by citing Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, then mentioned by name Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo and Republican Congressman Michael Grimm. I also noted the pervasive historic corruption among Chicago alderman, most of whom have been Democrats.

A reader who calls himself “Common Cents” responded online as follows: “Get your head out of the sand, or wherever it is. Both parties buy votes. I agree with you when you say it is wrong. We must make lobbying illegal if we want to start cleaning things up. I was in Chicago when the Democrats gave away free cell phones and all sorts of other things to the minorities to buy their votes to get Obama elected. That should also be illegal. I wonder if it is possible for you to write something from a fair and balanced point of view...I doubt it.”

I am used to getting misreadings of my columns which put forward a liberal viewpoint, but I was surprised that Common Cents was unable to see “balance” in a column which mostly targeted Democrats. I wasn’t surprised at the hostility, but I don’t believe we should accept rudeness and ad hominem remarks in place of reasoned argument. So I responded: “I don’t know who you are, but you sure are unpleasant. What could be more balanced than a column about how both parties are guilty of corruption. Can you read?”

That provoked Common Cents: “By the way, resorting to name calling is not professional. My debate teacher said it was an admission of defeat. Let’s stick to the issues.”

I repeat this exchange partly because I think that rudeness ought to be called out. I also find Common Cents’ projection amusing: he has made hostile comments to me before, here he made a few more, but then he gets huffy when I called him “unpleasant”.

Common Cents resembles many online political commentators: he doesn’t carefully read what he comments on, he proposes simplistic solutions to complex problems, and he ridicules anyone with different political leanings. But my response to him also resembles too many political columnists: after noting his unpleasantness, I wrote sarcastically, “Can you read?” By responding to rudeness with rudeness, I cut off the possibility of actually opening a dialogue with someone who is interested enough in what I write to read and respond. I don’t know if Common Cents is capable of a reasonable political conversation, but my own actions made that much less likely.

Everyone complains about the uncivil state of our national political conversation, the tendency to assume that political opponents are stupid at best and, more likely, evil. And everyone waits for the other guy to shape up.

So my New Year’s resolution is to break that cycle myself by inviting my critics to civil dialogue. I do that here in general, but I will also do it in the more difficult situations when someone calls me a name, or says I am stupid or crazy. I will try my best not to respond in kind, but to find the common ground of our shared interests, to remain polite and respectful. As Common Cents suggests, I will try to stick to the issues and see if I can coax similar behavior from my critics.

The open antagonism which characterizes so many of our political conversations is not characteristic of the rest of our lives. Without knowing another person’s politics, we say hello on the street, root for the same teams, and offer help when needed. And we love the same country. If we can short-circuit our tendency to assume the worst when we find out that someone lives on the other side of an invisible political fence, we will not only have more successful politics, we will be better human beings.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, January 6, 2015

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa

At the family dinner table a couple of days before Christmas, my nephew, who is about to become a father, expressed reluctance to lie to his child about Santa Claus. That led to many stories around the table about belief in Santa.

My son Sam remembered that he was getting skeptical about Santa one Christmas when his great wish was for a Lego Monorail kit. He didn’t have much hope, however, because in his 6-year-old judgment that toy was much too expensive for his frugal parents. Then the Monorail appeared under the tree on Christmas morning in his grandparents’ house, after a long night of secret construction in the company of my similarly busy brothers-in-law. Sam’s skepticism vanished for another season.

One year my daughter Mae told her slightly younger cousins Helen and Ann that she knew “the truth about Santa” and she would be happy to pass on this knowledge. They were not ready for “the truth”, but the next year Helen went looking for clues before Christmas. She found some hidden gifts that then showed up in her stocking on Christmas.

Most Christmas movies, especially the older ones I love, like “Miracle on 34th Street”, not only assume that Santa is real, but that all good people will eventually come to believe that. In the modern remake of “Miracle on 34th Street”, when some military man testifies in court that it would be impossible to make billions of toys at the North Pole, Kris Kringle scoffs. Of course you can’t see the factory – it’s magic.

Dear Prudence” on Slate recently argued that children don’t get hurt by eventually discovering “the truth about Santa”. She wrote that “one of the delights of being a parent is to spread a little fairy dust occasionally.” But not everyone agrees. Philosophy professor David Kyle Johnson at King’s College, a Catholic college in Pennsylvania, denounces the “Santa lie”. His argument appears to be about the immorality of lying, while most psychologists say that parental tales of Santa do no harm.

The wonderful story “The Polar Express” directly addresses how belief in Santa gradually disappears as children get older. University of Texas psychologist Jacqueline Woolley interviewed children and found that belief in Santa peaked about age 5, when nearly all children believed, and then dropped off quickly, so that by age 9, only one in three thought Santa was real. Research by Occidental College psychologists Andrew Shtulman and Rachel InKyung Yoo showed that children gradually lose their belief in Santa’s purely magical qualities as their understanding of the physical world grows. But to preserve something of Santa, they develop explanations for his impossible activities which are more plausible to them, such as that he has millions of elves as helpers to make all those toys.

My children are too old to have had experienced the Elf on the Shelf craze, and I’m happy for that. Scaring children into proper behavior with stories about magic spies for Santa is, in my opinion, a perversion of Santa’s magic into something that parents, not children, want. I might not go as far as Professor Laura Pinto, who argues that the all-seeing Elf prepares kids to accept the controversial activities of the NSA and the surveillance state, but I find the whole idea creepy.

In a New York Times opinion column, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz writes that Google searches for “depression” and similar words are less frequent around Christmas. Gallup surveys show Americans’ mood improves around Christmas, while the number of suicides drops. Maybe that’s part of Santa’smagic.

Can Santa really deliver toys across the world in one night? Can he squeeze down all those chimneys? Those are the wrong questions. Even in some Jewish families, Christmas is a magical time, when we all can dream of giving the perfect gift, of seeing our loved ones smile with delight as they discover what’s inside those carefully wrapped packages. For me, as long as belief in Santa might fascinate another generation of children with images of magical generosity, I’ll grin when Kris Kringle wins his case one more time.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville, IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, December 30, 2014

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Are We a Great Nation?

Now we know a lot more about the role of torture in America. A summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee report on the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program is now available for all to read. The full Committee study is more than 6700 pages long and is still classified. It is the result of 5 years of study by the Committee. Even the summary is not easy reading. It covers hundreds of pages. The full report is actually two reports: the majority Democrats wrote and passed the report, while the minority Republicans objected to parts or all of it, and some voted against releasing even the summary.

In fact, many Republicans on the Committee chose not to participate in the investigation at all. When the final report came up for a vote, the 7 Democrats, one independent, and one Republican voted for it, and 6 Republicans against.

The report details the following treatment of prisoners in American custody: prisoners were force fed; one prisoner showed medical signs of a violent anal rape; one prisoner froze to death after being chained naked to the floor of his unheated cell overnight; waterboarding was frequently used, and several prisoners nearly died from this treatment; threats were made to rape or kill family members, including children, of the prisoners; one prisoner was put in ice-water baths and forced to stand for 66 hours (he was arrested because of mistaken identity); one prisoner was placed in a coffin-sized box for 11 days, and also in a box 2' by 2.5' by 2.5' for more than a day.

Of a total of 119 prisoners, 39 were tortured, 6 of them before any attempt was made to see if they would cooperate without torture. At least 26 innocent prisoners were improperly detained, but some of them were tortured, too.

The CIA provided misleading testimony to Congress and the President about a variety of issues, including the total number of prisoners and the methods of interrogation. Private contractors developed the torture techniques, employed them on prisoners, and evaluated their effectiveness. They earned millions of dollars for their work.

The major objection of the Republican Senators to the Committee report is over the issue of effectiveness. While the official report written by Democrats says that “enhanced interrogation techniques” were “not an effective means of acquiring intelligence”, the minority Republicans disagree, and have written dozens of pages of detailed objections. But the most significant assessment of the effectiveness of CIA torture was provided by CIA chief John Brennan, who said after the report was released that, “the cause-and-effect relationship between the application of those EITs and the ultimate provision of information is unknown and unknowable.”

The question of effectiveness cannot be answered. I think it’s more important for our national self-respect to ask whether torture ought to be used by the American government whether or not it is effective. The minority Republican report does not address the morality of torture. One Republican on the Committee, Susan Collins of Maine, stated at the beginning of her own minority report that “the use of torture is deplorable and is completely contrary to our values as Americans.” She notes that the US ratified the international Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment in 1994, and thereby promised that “no exceptional circumstances whatsoever”, including war, could be used as a justification of torture. Another Republican with personal knowledge of torture, Senator John McCain, praised the report on the floor of the Senate, and said “the use of torture compromises that which most distinguishes us from our enemies, our belief that all people, even captured enemies, possess basic human rights”.

The partisan division in the Senate Committee is mirrored in the general public. A poll by the Pew Research Center found that 76% of Republicans thought the torture methods were justified, and 64% thought the release of the report was wrong. Only 37% of Democrats justified torture, but 56% said the report’s release was correct. More liberal Democrats were less likely to justify torture, but more likely to approve the release. Republicans say that torture helped prevent terrorist attacks, while Democrats are split on that issue.

The founders of the United States were Enlightenment thinkers who eagerly put into practice the ideas of their philosophical peers. One of the foundations of Enlightenment thought was the rejection of torture. That belief was written into our Constitution’s Eighth Amendment, which bans “cruel and unusual punishment”.

It is noteworthy that those conservative Americans who insist most loudly that we should follow the founding documents literally, and who also insist that the US is an exceptional nation because of its moral virtue, defend torture because they believe it is effective. The rejection of torture as immoral has now become a “liberal” idea, just as it was in the 18th century, when the most liberal political leaders in the world founded our nation.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, December 23, 2014