Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Who Cares About Corruption?

Governor Pat Quinn of Illinois has only a few weeks left in office after his defeat by Bruce Rauner. That left him enough time to get Lou Bertuca appointed as executive director of the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority, which was “created by the Illinois General Assembly in 1987 for the purpose of constructing and renovating sports stadiums for professional sports teams.” The ISFA owns US Cellular Field, home of the Chicago White Sox, and has a $40 million annual budget. The position pays $160,000 per year, not bad for a 30-year-old with no relevant experience, except that he was Quinn’s campaign manager.

That is corruption, the misuse of government for the benefit of private interests. Corruption exists at the nexus of money and power: money buys governmental power, and power enables people to make money. Quinn promoted himself as a crusader against corruption when he sought office, but he no longer has any reason, except perhaps conscience, to refrain from rewarding friends at the expense of the public good.

Quinn’s appointment of Bertuca is called patronage, the doling out of government jobs to friends and supporters rather than to qualified candidates. The Civil Service Commission was established in 1883 to end decades of patronage scandals. Applicants for federal jobs would have pass an examination to demonstrate their qualifications. Despite countless efforts to get rid of patronage in the US, the use of power to reward unqualified people continues, even at the highest levels.

Illinois has the reputation of having one of the most corrupt state governments in the country. Beyond the tendency of our governors to commit crimes and go to prison, it involves the systematic abuse of the public trust for personal enrichment. That reputation has been confirmed by some political scientists at the University of Illinois at Chicago. They wrote that “the Chicago metropolitan region has been the most corrupt area in the country since 1976,” and that Illinois is the third most corrupt state. Besides the corrupt governors, 31 out of 100 of Chicago aldermen since 1973 have been convicted of corruption, an incredible continuity of criminality. Most of these convictions involved bribes to influence government decisions. When states are ranked by convictions of public officials per capita, we see that corruption is non-partisan: the highest rates over the past 40 years were reached by Democratic Illinois and Washington, DC, and Republican North and South Dakota and Mississippi. On this score, the least corrupt states are in the West: Oregon, Washington and Utah.

These incidents pale in comparison to the deep corruption which plagues other nations. Two weeks ago dozens of Italian mobsters were arrested for forcing their way into the city government of Rome. An investigation has revealed “widespread and unchecked corruption of public money” through nationwide crime syndicates infiltrating local governments, using them to siphon millions from public treasuries. While ordinary Italians suffer from inept or nonexistent public services, politicians and gangsters rake in illegal profits.

A new book describes Russia under Vladimir Putin as a “kleptocracy”, in which billions of rubles in public assets were seized by high-ranking Communist Party members, especially KGB operatives like Putin. He now rules an increasingly authoritarian state designed to preserve these corrupt gains by undermining internal democratic forces, weakening the independent media, and spreading disinformation in the West.

The organization Transparency International publishes a “Corruption Perceptions Index”, ranking nations “based on expert opinions of public sector corruption”, by which is meant “prevalent bribery, lack of punishment for corruption and public institutions that don’t respond to citizens’ needs.” The oldest democracies in Europe and North America are the least corrupt, while nations in the Middle East, Africa and Asia rank highest. The United States does not come out very well, perceived as more corrupt than most western European countries, closer to Chile, Uruguay and Hong Kong than to England, Germany or Canada.

Corruption can be rooted out only by a combination of political and popular will. But while many politicians and citizens decry corruption, it is apparently all too easy to give that fight a low priority. New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo set up a new “independent” ethics commission in 2013 to attack corruption. When the panel issued a subpoena to a firm that counted Cuomo as a client, his office demanded they withdraw it. This March, Cuomo disbanded the commission. New York voters displayed a similar apathy when they re-elected Republican Michael Grimm to Congress, despite his 20-count indictment for tax fraud. Three other New York state legislators who are under indictment also won, a Republican and two Democrats.

Transparency International cites “elections decided by money” as a sign of public corruption. The role of private money in public elections is much greater in the US than anywhere else. Giant campaign contributions allow the richest Americans and their corporations to write Congressional legislation. Because the ability of the wealthy to buy American elections through campaign contributions is legal, it does not count in international comparisons of corruption. But if we cannot reduce the influence of money in our political system, we may eventually lose our democracy to legalized corruption.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, December 16, 2014

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Israel and Academics

It is difficult for me to write about Israel, because I have conflicting feelings. On my only visit to Israel in 1993, when I was 45 years old, I felt a surprising exhilaration when I landed. For the first time in my life, I was not an exception, a minority, an identity that needed to be explained. I felt at home in a place I had never been, safe from misunderstanding.

After six weeks in Jerusalem, I also felt that I had never lived in such a racist place. Openly expressed sentiments about Arabs, derogatory, demeaning and condescending, made me think of Southern whites talking about blacks before the civil rights era.

Although the conflict between Jews and Palestinians, so prominent in the headlines during the recent Gaza conflict, has faded once again into the media background, it remains a hot topic for academics. The traditional late fall and winter meetings of academic organizations has brought up the question of boycotting Israeli universities as punishment for the invasion of Gaza and the deaths of civilians. The larger context is the emotional issue of the existence of Israel itself.

At the end of November, the Middle East Studies Association held its annual meeting in Washington DC. Although MESA calls itself “a non-political association”, its focus on the Middle East is one-sided: none of the editors of its three journals and its nine current “honorary fellows” study Israel or are Jewish; they all focus on Islamic nations. On the first day of the conference, Steven Salaita appeared to a standing ovation. Salaita has become famous, not for his scholarship, which is shoddy, but because his virulently anti-Israel tweets cost him a job at the University of Illinois. He is an open hater of Israel: “‘Hate’ is such a strong word. That’s why it’s my preferred verb when discussing racism, colonization, neoliberalism, sexism and Israel.”

Salaita asks, “What exactly is wrong with hating Israel?” The answer for any academic is obvious: our job is supposed to be to evaluate dispassionately, to weigh objectively, to write even-handedly. Yet the MESA participants applauded Salaita. Presumably they agree with his claim that “civility is the language of genocide”.

Lara Kiswani, leader of the Arab Resource and Organizing Center in San Francisco, said last month at UC Berkeley that the boycott of Israel was intended to destroy the Israeli state. When a Jewish member of the audience said she felt threatened by such language, Kiswani said, “part of the problem with the Palestine question particularly on campus is it always gets framed as this two-sided thing and liberal democracy loves to make it seem like everyone has a right to speak . . . . As long as you choose to be on that side, I’m going to continue to hate you.” So much for discussion.

The kind of argument made by such demagogues is well represented by the Kent State University professor of Latin American history Julio Pino, who recently wrote that “academic friends of Israel” are personally “culpable” “for the murder of over 1,400 Palestinian children, women and elderly civilians” by a “regime that is the spiritual heir to Nazism.”

MESA and other academic organizations which have endorsed a boycott of Israel represent one side of one-sided arguments about the Middle East. They never mention the launching of rockets at Israeli civilians or the terror bombings inside Israel. Nor do the boycotters ever announce a set of principles for deciding whom to boycott, because that would force them to expand the list of nations they hate for human rights abuses: China, Iran, North Korea.

The other side is loudly voiced in Israel and the US, and has gained weight in response to the increasing noise from the Israel haters. Anyone in Israel who dares to assert that Israeli citizens of Palestinian descent have rights is liable to be shouted down, cursed and threatened. A recent poll showed that one third of Israelis believe Israeli Arabs should not have the vote. When a newscaster reported on deaths in Gaza, a Facebook page with thousands of supporters demanded that she be fired. A group of rabbis said property should not be rented to Arabs. Another religious organization named Lehava (Flame) breaks up weddings between Jews and Muslims. Fans of the soccer team Beitar Jerusalem protested when two Muslim players were signed.

The new President of Israel, Reuven Rivlin, a Likud member and ardent supporter of continued construction of settlements on the West Bank, is also a passionate defender of equal rights for Arabs in Israel. For that he has been called “President of Hezbollah”, “traitor”, and “Arab agent”. President Rivlin recently argued that Israel is “a sick society”, and asked if Israelis have “forgotten how to be decent human beings”. On November 29, a bilingual Jewish-Arab school in Jerusalem, the largest mixed institution in Israel, was set on fire after the arsonists had scrawled “Death to Arabs” on the walls.

Here in the US, an organization named Amcha has published a list of 200 Middle Eastern studies academics who, it claims, are antisemitic because they criticize Israeli policies. In October, 40 Jewish Studies professors shot back with a statement deploring Amcha’s efforts to stifle open discussion.

The Israeli government deserves condemnation for its racist treatment of Palestinians, within Israel and in the occupied territories. Palestinian organizations, like Hamas, must be deplored for their terrorist attacks on civilians. Academics, and anyone else, who ignores the murderous behavior of both sides contributes to further polarization.

And I despair of ever seeing peace come to the one place where Jews are not a minority.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, December 9, 2014

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Giving Thanks

A sign outside of a local church had a short but profound message: “Give thanks.” We could all do more of that.

While the tradition of giving thanks to God for the harvest was well established in Europe, the first Thanksgiving of the Pilgrims in 1621 offered gratitude more explicitly to the Wampanoag tribe, who had taught the Pilgrims to grow corn and had helped with supplies of food during their first winter. Sadly that gratitude to Native Americans for their life-saving assistance did not last long.

Our national Thanksgiving celebration was proclaimed by Abraham Lincoln in 1863 in a futile attempt to forge a sense of unity between North and South during the Civil War. He had been influenced by the efforts of the writer Sarah Josepha Hale, who was an advocate for ending slavery, for higher education for women, and for women entering the work force. She was a national patriot, advocating the preservation of Washington’s home at Mount Vernon, the building of a monument at Bunker Hill, and the unifying spirit of Thanksgiving. Lincoln was the fifth president to whom she wrote requesting that Thanksgiving become a national holiday.

At Thanksgiving many families say what they are thankful for. It is important to remember and articulate those things in our lives for which we are most grateful. But the thanks given around the dinner table are often not directed at anyone. The real power of “thanks” comes when they are given freely to another person.

To give thanks, we are often urged to give, to make donations of time or money to deserving causes, like the homeless, animal shelters, or senior centers. That is a form of paying it forward, a phrase originated a century ago by Lily Hardy Hammond in her 1916 book “In the Garden of Delight”, long before the film “Pay It Forward” was produced in 2000. She wrote, “You don’t pay love back; you pay it forward.” Turning our sense of gratitude for the bounties we enjoy into good deeds for others is an important social glue. But this form of thanks also does not reach the people to whom we owe our gratitude.

I don’t believe it is possible to say “thanks” to people too often. Great leaders I know use frequent gestures of public thanks to encourage and motivate. Giving thanks brings people together in relationships of support, appreciation and trust, and encourages our best behavior toward each other.

We all need appreciation. When our random acts of kindness are acknowledged with thanks, we feel empowered to continue our generosity. Thanks can lead to more thanks.

Thanking someone is not always easy. It might acknowledge that another person’s help was needed, that they had power we didn’t have. Giving thanks, though, can level those differences by evening the score.

Sometimes people have difficulty accepting thanks. Yet even when someone says, “Oh, that’s nothing,” they may appreciate the thanks.

I am thankful for my good health at 66, but it would be very easy to forget the many doctors who have employed their extraordinary skills to keep my body functioning. From the regular ministrations of my chiropractor, Jackie Lausen, to the emergency intervention of my eye surgeon, Lanny Odin, doctors doing their jobs have earned my personal thanks for their work. Thanks should be given not just for unexpected favors, but also for normal services.

Although I expect my children to be kind to their father, I also thank them for love I don’t take for granted. The less we take for granted, the more we will say “thanks”, the more appreciation is spread to another person, the more joy in giving is shared. Good givers don’t need thanks, but always appreciate them.

Thanks for reading my words.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, December 2, 2014