Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Not Fit For Public Office

As we consider people for public offices, we seek to understand their political ideas in the light of our own preferences. We also evaluate candidates’ character to decide if they are worthy of our trust. The political lives of two candidates for the US Senate show they are not fit for public office, one on grounds of character and the other because of ideology.

Mark Kirk is a liar. Kirk is running for the Illinois Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama. Over his political career Kirk has used deliberate lies about his past to promote himself as a better person. Although he has been a Congressman for 5 terms, his lying only recently attracted attention. In 2002 Kirk said in a Congressional hearing, “I was the Navy's Intelligence Officer of the Year,” claiming personal expertise in national security matters. In fact, Kirk got no such individual award from the Navy; he was part of a large unit, which was given a different award by a private organization.

In 2003, Kirk said on the House floor, “The last time I was in Iraq, I was in uniform flying at 20,000 feet and the Iraqi Air Defense network was shooting at us.” This was also a lie, as Kirk had never been fired upon in Iraq. Kirk sent a letter to constituents claiming he was a veteran of Operation Desert Storm, when he actually remained in the US. His Congressional website said he served in Operation Iraqi Freedom, but he didn’t.

Kirk also lied about his civilian life. He claimed to the Illinois Education Association, on the House floor, and many other times, that he had been a teacher in a nursery school, when he had merely supervised a play group.

Kirk lied to his Congressional colleagues, to his staff, and to Illinois voters. He lied on TV, on the Internet and on paper. Kirk’s lies about his past have been compounded by his lies about these lies. He claimed that his campaign biography was “not precise”. He said a staffer wrote the false letter to Illinois voters. He has brushed off his years of lying as tricks of memory.

The honesty of Rand Paul, running for Senate in Kentucky, is not an issue, but his politics are. Last month, Paul said he did not support the part of the 1964 Civil Rights Act which prohibited private businesses from discrimination, based on his belief in a marketplace free of government regulation.

In 1964, women were shunted into low-paying jobs and prevented from climbing the corporate ladder. Jews were excluded from country clubs and elite universities. African Americans were excluded from bars, hotels, restaurants, barber shops, and thousands of other commercial sites across the country.

In the 46 years since then, the systematic discrimination against blacks, Jews, and women practiced by white Christian males in American businesses and organizations has nearly, though not completely, disappeared. Now Rand Paul says private businesses should be free to discriminate if they want to. Defending this position to the Louisville Courier Journal, Paul said, “In a free society we will tolerate boorish people who have abhorrent behavior, but if we're civilized people we publicly criticize that and don't belong to those groups or associate with those people.” As a white Christian male, Paul doesn’t seem to care that this means that minority groups would have to choose not to get good jobs, not to patronize the best restaurants, not to try to get into the best colleges, not to have the same opportunities that he has. He is willing to tolerate discrimination against people not like him.

For very different reasons, Mark Kirk and Rand Paul are unfit for the Senate. They do not represent the character or beliefs that should define our political system. It is not their party affiliation that should influence our votes, but rather what they stand for: dishonesty and discrimination.

Jacksonville, IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, June 29, 2010

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Tea Party -- Again

My column last week about the Tea Party generated considerable comment. I like to know what others think about my columns, even if some of the comments were knee-jerk reflexes to any disagreement with Tea Party ideology. The angriest readers didn’t seem to believe that I was mainly quoting Tea Party spokespeople. If that makes me a “liberal” “progressive” “socialist” “idiot”, I accept the label.

I’m a persistent idiot, though. This time I just want to detail some of the political ideas that candidates for high office, who claim to be leaders of the Tea Party movement, have advocated for all Americans.

Sharron Angle, Republican nominee for Senate in Nevada, opposed fluoridation of water in 1999 and she recently advocated making alcohol consumption illegal. Angle thought in 2009 that it is “the right thing to do” if “one parent stays home with the children and the other provides the financial support for the family.” Last month Angle said, “We need to phase out Medicare and Social Security in favor of something privatized.” She wants to eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency and repeal regulations which restrict off-shore drilling.

Angle implied this year that Americans might have to take up arms against our own government. In January, she said, “If Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies.” In a May conversation about guns, she added, “If we don’t win at the ballot box, what will be the next step?”

Rand Paul, Republican candidate for Senate in Kentucky, made a big splash in an MSNBC interview with Rachel Maddow by attacking the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for not allowing private businesses to practice racial discrimination. Paul also opposed the Fair Housing Act and has criticized the Americans with Disabilities Act. Paul, and many other conservatives, have complained that President Obama has been too harsh with BP for its oil catastrophe.

Few of these political ideas are now being advocated by their former proponents. They don’t appear on newly scrubbed campaign websites. Rand Paul discovered that most of his fellow Republicans disagreed with his idea that a significant part of the Civil Rights triumph of the 1960s was wrong. That led him and the Republican Party into a whole new strategy of pretending that past statements don’t exist and only allowing these very conservative candidates to appear in front of friendly media hosts, who will not ask about them.

Angle and Paul have changed their tune for good reason. Each of the above political positions is far out of line with what most Americans want. Taken together, they indicate how radical these candidates are, even how dangerous. How many parents want their children to get more cavities so that we can protect ourselves from imaginary plots to drug us with fluoride? Much more significant is the belief that businesses should be so free of government regulation, meaning regulation by our whole society, that they can pollute as they wish and return to their former discriminatory practices against African Americans, Jews, and women.

These ideas were not misstatements by nervous political neophytes. They reveal the extreme conservative belief that the free market is not just a high priority, it is the only priority.

I want my government to stand behind laws that make discrimination illegal in every business in the US. One of the biggest changes in Jacksonville and other American towns in the 20th century was the legal end of segregation in local businesses. If some candidate for national office thinks that should not have happened, I want to know why. And then I’ll do everything I can to defeat them.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville, IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, June 22, 2010

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Republicans in Disguise

The Tea Partiers are not what they seem. They say they’re about freedom, not party, that they just want government off their backs. They appear to attack incumbents of both parties. So why are they all Republicans?

Americans have just suffered through eight years of escalating government intrusion into our lives. The Bush-Cheney version of Republican government violated constitutional rights with impunity, especially in their first term, when Congress was also controlled by Republicans. Once their secret surveillance programs became known, even the Republican-nominated Supreme Court rejected these Bush policies.

The only consistent critics of these infringements on our liberties have been Democrats, notably Barack Obama. The transition in Congress from Republican to Democratic majorities in the election of 2006 and the election of Obama in 2008 have meant a reversal of Republican violations of the Bill of Rights.

Why doesn’t this matter to the Tea Partiers, whose arguments all appear to end with anger at “big Obama government”? Here’s why: both Democrats and Republicans believe in using government intrusion into otherwise private matters to accomplish their objectives, but unlike the Republicans, liberals focus on the marketplace.

One of the 15 commandments on TeaParty.org is “Intrusive Government Stopped.” The website of the Tea Party Patriots makes clear what they mean: “we oppose government intervention into the operation of private business.” This is a familiar Republican idea, but as in everything else, the Tea Partiers are extremists. Rand Paul, Senate candidate in Kentucky, criticized the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for prohibiting private business from racial discrimination. Sharron Angle, who just won the Republican nomination for Senate in Nevada, wants less government regulation of off-shore drilling, as BP’s catastrophic well keeps pumping oil into the ocean.

Another commandment is “Government Must Be Downsized.” But this is not the libertarian mantra. The TPs demand more government control to achieve their goals: “traditional family values”, English as the official language, pursuit of illegal immigrants.

Like many extremists, the TPs are blinded by ideology. They don’t understand the relationship of government and big business. TeaParty.org demands more “pro-domestic employment”, which means restrictions on the export of our jobs by global corporations. They want “Political Offices Available to Average Citizens”, which cannot happen without government restrictions on corporate political contributions.

The Tea Partiers won’t admit that big business is on their backs and everyone’s back. Despite their concerns about taxes, they don’t seem interested in where the rest of their money goes. They are obsessed with their property, but they don’t want to think through the complex economics which determines what their property is worth. If Obama and the Democrats prevent big banks from ripping them off through credit card fees, they won’t talk about it, because it might confuse their ranting about big government.

The Tea Partiers really are only interested in getting government off their backs. They don’t care about our backs or anyone else’s backs. They don’t care about people who look or sound like they might be recent immigrants – they want the whole country to follow Arizona’s new immigration and anti-ethnic studies policies. They don’t care about people whose lives are endangered by corporations. Even faced with the deaths of 29 miners in West Virginia and 11 oil workers on Deep Horizon, they continue to attack regulation. They don’t care about our safety, as long as their “sacred” right to carry guns wherever they go is unlimited.

The Tea Partiers are wrong. The people they support will increase government intrusion into our private lives, under the guise of protecting us from enemies all around, and will help big business exploit our private resources.

In any case, they won’t change American politics. Despite putting pretty faces like Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin on their posters, they’re way too unattractive. Like the guy who strolls into Starbucks with his gun, they might get a lot of attention, but they’ll make no friends.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, June 15, 2010

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us

Suddenly everyone’s worried about the environment. The Gulf oil disaster, perhaps the biggest oil spill in history, and still pumping, once again puts the spotlight on how human activity can destroy our earthly home.

Watch the news and everybody is angry. Some scream at BP, a repeat offender who puts profits before safety, their private corporate economic interests before the interests of the rest of us. Sounds just like the West Virginia mine tragedy or the financial meltdown. Free enterprise can be deadly.

Many are angry at the government for allowing the regulatory process, which might have prevented the blowout, to be corrupted. People who constantly urge the government to get off our backs now complain that the feds didn’t do enough.

Like the oil company executives before Congress, everybody is pointing fingers at everyone else. There certainly is plenty of blame to go around, but the biggest culprit is neither BP nor the government. As Pogo said so memorably so long ago about the pollution of the Okefenokee swamp, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

We want companies like BP to keep feeding our hunger for vast amounts of oil, and to keep the price of gasoline lower than the rest of the world. We want them to be careful not to ruin the environment, but we complain about excessive regulation. We want the government to prevent us from accidents caused by corporate greed. But what are we doing to protect the environment?

Are we limiting the pollutants and poisons we routinely use to wash our clothes, to kill our weeds, to clean our houses? Are we reducing our consumption of plastic, Styrofoam, gasoline, and paper? Average Americans are creating little environmental disasters in our homes and yards every day. Our individual contributions to worldwide pollution seem insignificant. But when each American family’s careless behavior is multiplied by a hundred million families, the overall effect of our daily habits is devastating.

Taking care of our environment is inconvenient. Just as it costs money and effort for big companies to do their work without despoiling the earth, it requires extra effort on our part to do no earthly harm. Saving water, recycling instead of disposing, reducing energy usage, and purchasing cleaner products means extra effort or money, or both. The other day I recycled a computer keyboard, a compact fluorescent light bulb, and some scrap metal. I had to drive all over town to avoid putting these items in the trash.

If we want to point the finger at BP without being hypocritical, we have to do our part to preserve the environment for our children and grandchildren. We can’t spray Roundup at every weed, put all of our waste into landfills, use electric blowers on our sidewalks, and demand ever more petroleum to fuel profligate lifestyles. We can’t just look to the government to protect the environment, and we certainly can’t expect corporations fixated on the bottom line to voluntarily be good environmental citizens.

We need to demand more of ourselves just as we demand more of others. It turns out that the convenience that has defined our American lifestyles is not good for America. The cheap energy, the overpackaging, the electrical and gas-powered toys in our garages, and the automobile-based transportation system are unsustainable. It’s not just debt that we are saddling future generations with; we are bequeathing polluted air, poisoned soil, and ever-growing garbage dumps. And that doesn’t even count the BP calamity.

We have made tremendous progress in learning to think environmentally since the first Earth Day 40 years ago. But it’s not enough. We have not yet been willing to change our daily lives, to give up convenience, to do the work that preserving the earth requires. When will we start?

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville, IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, June 8, 2010