Monday, August 30, 2010

Clapping for Conservatism

I went to listen to Joe Wurzelbacher when he came to Jacksonville. I want to hear opinions directly from the people who express them. I didn’t expect to agree with Wurzelbacher, but he is a spokesman for conservatives across the country. The media provide a lot of information about him, but that’s not enough. What is he like as a person?

I also went to learn more about my neighbors. What do my neighbors who support conservative ideas do and say when politics is the subject? What is a conservative political event like?

I heard Wurzelbacher say over and over that he was a Christian, that he prayed often, that he let God guide him. Many people have loudly professed their belief in God and their adherence to their religion, including Martin Luther King and Jimmy Swaggart, Pope Benedict XVI and the 9/11 bombers, those Israelis who hate all Palestinians, and leaders of the Ku Klux Klan. Belief in God is no guarantee of goodness. I want to know how a person acts before I make judgments. I don’t find it that useful to know what a person’s religion or job is, what color their skin is, where they were born, or who their daddy is. That information might help me understand their behavior, but it doesn’t determine my judgment of character.

I didn’t find Wurzelbacher to be a particularly admirable person. He enjoys thumbing his nose at big groups of people who make him uncomfortable. Homosexuals are “queers” and he’s proud enough of using that word to tell us about it. Liberals, the half of the electorate who voted for Obama, or maybe just the third of the country who call themselves liberals, are “a sickness in our society”. Worse even than being called a Commie, I have now been diagnosed with an incurable disease.

When he says that “global warming is a joke, a farce,” he also means that all those people across the country who worry about it are fools. He didn’t pay his state taxes until a lien was put on his property. He told us that if he had the respect of his neighbors and his family, then “the rest of the world can go to hell.”

Wurzelbacher is not a bad man. I appreciated his emphasis on fatherhood and his exhortations to be more active in politics. But I don’t think we would be friends. And I sure wouldn’t jump up to cheer everything he said.

That’s what the whole gathering around me did. Do my neighbors think that these things are okay? Is this man a hero just because he preaches conservatism? Does saying he’s a Christian mean he can also say whatever else he wants, no matter whom it offends? Does his quality of thinking earn their admiration? If they win in November, are the people from Take Back Illinois going to treat gays like queers and liberals like sick people? If they don’t agree with Joe the Bigot, why don’t they say so?

I don’t know what the answers are, because I don’t understand what my neighbors were thinking. Maybe they think I’m sick. Maybe they would say, “Oh, he’s okay, but all other liberals are sick,” like the good Negroes that racists used to talk about or the one good Jew that every Nazi knew.

Perhaps it’s my concern about character that puts me out of step. These days it seems like only political allegiance determines judgments about whether people are good or bad. I want to be judged by how I act, not how I vote, by whether I tell the truth, how I treat my neighbors, how I live in my community, how well I take care of my mother. (Hi, Ma.) That’s how I judge other people. Does that make me sick?

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, August 31, 2010

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Joe the Plumber: A Political Inspiration?

I went to hear Joe the Plumber the other day at a Take Back Illinois 912 event. I wanted to know what motivated today’s conservatives. Here is what I found out.

The “912” movement is based on principles announced by Glenn Beck. The 9 principles and 12 values could be endorsed by any American: honesty; hard work; family; thrift; faith; “America is good”. One of the fundamental beliefs of today’s conservatives is that only they support these ideals. Liberals hate America. But liberals have also taken over America, which is why it needs to be “taken back” by this movement.

The people at this event were all white, and African Americans appeared only in Wurzelbacher’s comment about a black woman who had murdered her children, and, of course, in nasty remarks about our President. This was an explicitly Christian gathering. As a Jew, I felt excluded. The only mention of non-Christians was Wurzelbacher’s applause line about how shameful it is that some Muslims wish to build a community center near Ground Zero, which drew excited applause. If anyone was homosexual, they might have been offended by Wurzelbacher’s proud use of “queer”.

It struck me that my neighbors saw themselves in a different and simpler world than the one I live in. In that room they were America, as they imagined it -- white, Christian and heterosexual. They don’t see why other people might be put off by this exclusive view or offended by their language. Like Laura Schlessinger, the conservative radio host who freely used the word “nigger” on her show, they don’t care to imagine how other people might think. They have nothing to offer to those who are really hurting in today’s economy: the unemployed; the underpaid; the uninsured.

Wurzelbacher seems sincere and forthright. He believes in fatherhood and doesn’t shrink from challenging authority. But he is unusually ignorant for a public speaker and is proud of simplistic political ideas: “Global warming is a farce”; “Social Security is a joke”. Like many public conservatives, he disdains those who disagree with him: “Liberals are a sickness in this society.”

Wurzelbacher is an expert on plumbing and little else. As a motivational speaker, however, he offers a clear message: “A politician is going to screw you.” Although he obviously disdains Democrats, he also refused to identify with Republicans. He was disgusted by his visit to Washington and the entire political elite. He believes that average citizens have allowed “them” to run the country for too long. He repeatedly urged us to “get off your butts” and take back control.

A few minutes later the audience demonstrated what they took away from Wurzelbacher’s populist message. Aaron Shock, our Congressman, made an unscheduled appearance and hijacked the event. He would not relinquish the microphone, despite the pleas of the host, until he had spoken as long as Wurzelbacher. Shock offered a well-rehearsed partisan message about cutting taxes and repealing health care reform. Shock is precisely the kind of slick politician of whom Wurzelbacher is suspicious. He derides government spending except when he can appear in a photo with the recipients of government grants, even those in which he played no role. Wurzelbacher’s audience got off their butts many times for Shock, standing and applauding his every platitude.

Shock is quite vocal about how important it is to cut government spending. But he, like other conservatives, presents no way to deal with the enormous deficits and debts that plague our national and state governments. Neither does he offer any evidence that, if his party were in power, he would support the painful policies that might bring us back into the black: cutting services, like education, fire, and police; cutting contractual pensions; reducing Social Security benefits; cutting military spending. That’s no way for an ambitious young man to get reelected.

Simple virtues and political clich├ęs won’t solve our problems, which can’t all be blamed on “liberals”. Getting off our butts to cheer our Congressman was not what Wurzelbacher wanted. If these conservatives do Take Back Illinois, they won’t know what to do with it.


Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, August 24, 2010

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The End of Encyclopedias?

The radical 18th-century thinkers who proposed democracy instead of aristocracy, legislatures instead of kings, and freedom instead of tyranny, also made a revolutionary proposal about knowledge. They imagined an encyclopedia which would make all significant knowledge available to everyone. Denis Diderot thought his pioneering Encyclop├ędie, published just before the French Revolution, would make people “more virtuous and more happy”.

Encyclopedias were too expensive for anyone but the rich, until affordable popular encyclopedias came onto the market in post-WWII America. What a boon for the homework assignments of my generation of baby boomers, and everyone since.

A huge team of experts created summaries on thousands of subjects in every field of knowledge. For those with a serious interest in some topic, the encyclopedia might just be a beginning, but it was a reliable first step. The whole intention behind the encyclopedia was to provide complete, verifiable and neutral information.

Those shelves of identically bound volumes are antiquated now, made superfluous by one of the characteristic inventions of the 21st century, the online encyclopedia. Instead of going home to consult the expensive volumes of “World Book”, students now consult Wikipedia for free on the internet. Wikipedia embodies the democracy of authorship and universal accessibility, has 10 times more entries, and is always up-to-date.

But just as this democratic dream seems to have come true, the whole idea of encyclopedias is being challenged. Andrew Schafly, the son of Phyllis Schafly, has created “Conservapedia”, an alternative encyclopedia for conservatives. Conservapedia’s home page appears to set traditional standards for inclusion: its first “commandment” is “Everything you post must be true and verifiable.” Is Conservapedia “a clean and concise resource for those seeking the truth,” as it claims? A glance inside Conservapedia shows something very different.

In the world of Conservapedia, and in much conservative politics today, truth is partisan. “We do not allow liberal censorship of conservative facts.” What are conservative facts, as opposed to plain old facts? Let’s read a few facts from Conservapedia’s home page: the chair of the Democratic National Committee is a “bozo” and atheists have a zero IQ.

The article on “Evolution” provides an example of how knowledge has become partisan through distortion. It begins by claiming that “a majority of the most prominent and vocal defenders of the evolutionary position have been atheists.” This is supported by a reference to the journal “Creation”. Quotations from scientific works of the past century are reproduced if they appear to cast doubt on evolutionary ideas. The scientists quoted approvingly in the article all support the creationist idea. In a section on debates between creationists and supporters of evolution (in which it is stated as fact that creationists nearly always win), there is no mention of the Pennsylvania federal court case, where the judge decisively repudiated the teaching of creationism as science. Evolution as a theory is linked with communism and Nazism. Toward the end of the article comes the clincher: “Americans most likely to believe only in the theory of evolution are liberals.”

Alongside atheists, liberals are the big fools in Conservapedia. Their article “Liberal” begins: “A liberal (also leftist) is someone who rejects logical and biblical standards, often for self-centered reasons. There are no coherent liberal standards; often a liberal is merely someone who craves attention, and who uses many words to say nothing.”

One of the many transgressions of liberals is their insistence that history be verifiably true and inclusive of all people. The discomfort that many conservatives feel with the facts of American history has been recently demonstrated by the Texas School Board’s attempt to rewrite our history by removing mentions of the slave trade, reducing the role of minorities, and downplaying Thomas Jefferson, because he promoted the separation of church and state.

The proper interpretation of history is very important to Conservapedia. An entire lecture course in American history has been created to substitute for “liberal textbooks” which invariably distort history, by denying these conservative facts:
“Most great contributions to western society have been made by conservative Christians.”
“Martin Luther King was a Republican who preached Conservative values.”
“Thomas Jefferson was not as successful or important as liberals claim; he failed personally and as president, and little in the Declaration of Independence is attributable to him.”
Jefferson’s views on religion are so uncomfortable to conservatives, that the Conservapedia just makes up a historical lie.

Conservapedia’s editors give this tip on how to learn history: “Beware of over-reliance on authority. Unless we're talking about the Bible, authority is not always going to be correct.”

The liberal conspiracy to distort the truth, as displayed in all previous encyclopedias, is everywhere, especially in most colleges. “Liberal college counselors lure students into liberal arts, education, and the social sciences. The kids prefer liberal courses to more substantial courses because they are easier and they get higher marks. They have to study less in these programs, but what they learn is mostly left-wing political indoctrination and secular humanism. It is a pity that parents pay for this kind of education and banks loan money against it. They will be sorry.”

Physics too can be dangerous. Conservapedia says that Einstein’s relaitvity theory is “a liberal conspiracy”: “The theory of relativity is a mathematical system that allows no exceptions. It is heavily promoted by liberals who like its encouragement of relativism and its tendency to mislead people in how they view the world.”

Conservapedia’s fact-checkers made important discoveries about President Obama: his political ideas are “Maoist”, his birthplace is uncertain, and “Obama is likely the first Muslim President”.

Conservapedia is mainly silly, reflecting Schafly’s cranky ideas, such as that vaccines are a conspiracy to poison us. But the wider idea that science, and other kinds of knowledge, can be “liberal” or “conservative” is dangerous. This is exactly the argument that German Nazis and Soviet Communists used to reject “Jewish” or “capitalist” ideas.

Like them, the Conservapedia uses political criteria to decide what knowledge is. Most of the world’s scientists are wrong. Most of the world’s historians are wrong. Most of the world’s encyclopedias are wrong. Because they are liberals, atheists, homosexuals, what they say must be wrong. We are right, because we speak truth.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville, IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, August 17, 2010

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Saving the Earth for Our Grandchildren

I’ll be 62 this month. Even if I live another 30 years, I won’t have to suffer much from the effects of global warming. Some more uncomfortably hot days, a few more storms, perhaps more expenses for air conditioning. I’ll be gone before it gets too hot.

My children are in their late 20's. By the time they are ready to retire, they’ll be facing a different world for their “golden” years. Dangerously hot summers will be common across the southern US. Coastal cities in Louisiana and Florida will be flooded. Thousands of animal and plant species will be extinct, with huge dead zones in the oceans. Unless we act now, these disasters will then accelerate during the lives of my grandchildren.

Science can deliver uncomfortable truths. When Rachel Carson announced in “Silent Spring” in 1962 that DDT was killing wildlife, agriculture had to abandon one of its basic tools. She was relentlessly attacked by politicians and the chemical industry. It took years to overcome resistance to her truths. When Dr. Herbert Needleman discovered in the late 1970s that lead was harming children’s brains, politicians and industrialists selling leaded paint and gasoline fought to discredit him.

This crisis is much worse. Until recently nobody knew that the unprecedented wealth of American society carried extreme dangers for our own future. Our modern lifestyles of consumption are slowly killing the planet. The truth of global warming and its long-term effects is scarier than vampires, aliens, and Bret Favre’s retirement put together. According to the latest issue of “National Wildlife”, “70 % of all known plant species, 37% of all known freshwater fish species, 30% of all amphibians, 28% of all reptiles, 22% of all mammals, and 12% of all birds now face threats to their survival.”

Once again politicians, big industry, and the professional deniers in the media say “Do nothing.” They rely on tortured logic, personal attacks, and outright lies to argue that the world’s scientists are wrong. The so-called Climategate scandal is an example of their tactics. Some stolen emails were massaged by climate change deniers to “prove” that scientists were lying. Further investigation shows that these emails were embarrassing about the researchers’ tactics, but say nothing against the scientific facts of global warming. A July 28 editorial in this paper laid out that uncomfortable truth, but you don’t see the deniers on TV or in local columns taking back their trumped-up charges.

The deniers have no credibility. They represent the same forces who have tried to prevent every attempt to protect our environment, which means to protect our health. They are afraid of the truth.

Do we as a society really care about anything but our own lives? Are we capable of seeing further into the future than tomorrow?

Global warming is not a party issue. Democrats and Republicans may not agree on the right means to reverse our production of greenhouse gases. But they must agree that it needs to be begun right away.

Hunters and farmers, bird watchers and truckers, rural and urban Americans will all suffer unless we act. Giant corporations will do nothing to change their methods unless they are forced to. Only government can stop global warming. Not just our government, either, but the world’s governments acting together. No amount of ideological posturing or flag-waving will help.

I’m sick of politicians who think only about their reelection, their campaign contributors, and their pictures on TV, who put ideology above country. I don’t expect them to come up with brilliant solutions. I just want them to take seriously the job we elected them to do – to think of the future, to gather the best information, to do what’s best for all Americans, those alive today and those not yet born. I want them to stop fiddling, while we burn up in this heat.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville, IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, August 10, 2010

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Budget Cowards

I just received a “Dear Neighbor” letter from Jim Watson, my representative to the Illinois House of Representatives. He starts right off deploring the disastrous financial problems of our state. The budget crisis in Illinois is far worse than at the federal level: the state has stopped paying what it owes to school districts, hospitals, and businesses. Generations of political leaders in Illinois have spent more money than the state brought in. Unlike the extraordinary corruption exhibited by a series of governors, this was an ordinary form of daily corruption: let someone else pay much later, when we are out of office. Watson says that “we must put an end to the culture of spending in Illinois.”

The rest of his letter then outlines five unsuccessful bills that Watson sponsored, each of which would reduce the state’s revenue and thus make the budget crisis worse. He offers no plan to offset these reductions with new sources of revenue.

I don’t think that Watson is a hypocrite for complaining about the budget and then advocating tax cuts. In fact, Watson is one of the few Republicans in Illinois who has been willing to discuss a tax increase, a necessary step to deal with the exploding state debt. Watson’s contradictory positions simply illustrate the great difficulty that politicians face in dealing with out-of-control government spending.

When conservative Republicans controlled Washington under George Bush, they spent government money on their pet projects with little regard for the long-term budgetary consequences. Now Republicans at the national level have made the deficit one of their major points of attack against the Democrats in preparation for the November elections. Republican concern about the deficit is loudest when they confront Democratic policies, such as the recent extensions of jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed, which only a handful of Republicans supported. When they advocate extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, Republicans are silent about the deficit. It’s clear that conservatives prefer to give money to the deserving wealthy, rather than the undeserving unemployed. At least Watson’s tax cut proposals for Illinois were targeted at lower-income homeowners and seniors.

Politicians love to brag about bringing home the bacon, helping their constituents financially with jobs, tax breaks, programs, construction projects and other forms of government spending. They shy away from anything to do with real cuts in spending, even in a crisis – Illinois legislators, both Democratic and Republican, have refused to make any decisions about budget cuts or new taxes, punting the whole problem to Governor Quinn, so he can take the blame. Despite the Congressional Republican shouting about Obama’s deficits, they offer no plans for balancing the budget if they take control in Washington. Like Watson and other local Republicans, their budget-cutting propaganda lacks one key element – specific ideas about what to cut.

Well, if the politicians are too cowardly to take on the toughest issues, we’ll just have to do it ourselves. So here is my financial castor oil for federal and state government:

1. Cut defense spending. The US currently outspends the rest of the world in military support. Get ready to get out of Iraq and Afghanistan. No futuristic weapons systems. No new generations of airplanes or destroyers.
2. Streamline our intelligence services. Wikipedia lists 21 separate intelligence agencies.
3. Push Social Security retirement age back one year (ouch, that hurts me, too!).
4. Raise the amount of income taxed for Social Security from $106,800 to $120,000.
5. Eliminate the recent tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, restoring the tax rates to their level when Ronald Reagan was President.
6. Cut farm subsidies to the agricultural giants, but not to family farms.
7. Don’t build new roads or bridges, unless there is a traffic crisis. But maintain our current infrastructure.
8. Don’t cut any funding of our educational system.
9. Hire half as many private consultants in every government department.

There, that wasn’t so difficult. It’s not enough, but it’s a start.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville, IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, August 3, 2010