Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Searching for the Liberal Elite

I think there is some misunderstanding about my family background. People who respond to my columns are saying the strangest things about me. So I’m going to say a bit about the Hochstadts to clear things up.

My grandfather, Josef Hochstadt, made a good living as a doctor in Vienna. My grandmother, Amalia Hochstadt, had family connections to the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. From families of storekeepers and rabbis, they had reached comfortable upper middle class comfort.

Considering what happened to them, it is hard to say they were in Vienna’s elite. My grandfather was thrown in jail, my grandmother managed to get her son Ernst to the US and her daughter to England, and then they escaped to Shanghai in 1939. The Nazis tried to steal everything they owned, but they were not entirely successful.

My father arrived in New York with a ring on his finger, a few clothes, and a charming accent. At least that’s what my mother says. She was the 16-year-old daughter of clothing store clerks. After they got married, my father became the smallest sort of businessman in New York, and my mother did secretarial work in our suburban house, built by Mr. Levitt. People are critical of suburbs, but I grew up loving suburban life. We were the average Americans -- hooray for the middle of the middle class!

Since high school I have entered one kind of elite. I did very well in school. I got a full scholarship to an expensive university that had just started to admit more than a few Jews, paid for by a foundation created by the heirs of General Motors. Thank you, rich capitalists!

At Brown University the scholarship kids found each other, and we met people we never knew before, families of wealth, power, and fame, who owned the banks they used, who endowed scholarships for people like us, who got buildings named after them. That was my first experience with the elite.

My wife and I have been teachers for 30 years, mostly sharing one job, one salary, and two kids. College professors do pretty well, although not as well as doctors, lawyers, MBAs, or accountants. As long as kids keep going to college, our jobs are not threatened. Our family has gradually moved from a small apartment to a small house to a big old house, like those we used to look at longingly on our cross-country family trips.

I think that ought to be enough personal information to judge whether I ever was part of any “elite”. Exiles, immigrants, middle-class Jews in the suburbs and a lifetime of teaching don’t add up to elite. My only elite quality, the intellectual skills that allowed me to become a professor, is apparently held against me by many people who dismiss learned people as living in an “ivory tower”. My opinions about matters of history, politics, and society are not as valuable as a plumber’s.

The funny thing is that the elite is never liberal. In every society I have lived in or studied, the elite ferociously protects its privileges. They fight against things like taxes on the rich, restrictions on their businesses, programs to help the poor. For example, based on exit polls in the 2004 Presidential election, the more money voters made, the more likely that they were Republican; voters who made over $200,000 were 62% Republican and 37% Democrat.

So when I see myself labeled as part of the “liberal elite”, and more often hear people talk about the “liberal elite”, I know they are trying hard not to think about all the people they know who are liberal but not elite, or elite but not liberal. Rather than consider the content of my argument, they retreat into an imaginary world. It’s too bad that so many people throw up walls around their minds, with labels like “liberal elite” or “ivory tower”, so they won’t have to think about what they already know.

Steve Hochstadt

Jacksonville IL

Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, September 28, 2010

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Fixing the World

When Franklin Roosevelt prepared to fight Japan in the Pacific, he had to wait until we were attacked first. There was just too strong a sentiment of isolationism in the US, powerful reservations about using American power to intervene in the politics and wars of other countries.

That all changed after World War II. We emerged from the war with the conviction that we should use our unprecedented “superpower” to make the world a better place. From the late 1940s through the 1960s, American advisers, arms, and troops were sent around the globe.

Vietnam changed all that. The Vietnam War was a disaster for everyone. Nearly 60,000 American soldiers dead, 300,000 physically wounded, countless men damaged in more subtle ways by Agent Orange or by what they experienced.

The way the war had been conducted discredited our national optimism for 20 years. We could no longer be sure of success in whatever intervention we tried, especially in places where we knew little about the people and they knew little of us. Many Americans also began to question our motives and methods, not just in Vietnam, but in Guatemala, Chile and Iran. The “Vietnam Syndrome” was a national change of heart and mind about the capacity and the morality of an interventionist foreign policy.

National attitudes and political strategies don’t last forever. Although those political leaders who favored the use of American military power across the globe were much quieter for the three decades at the end of the 20th century, they did not disappear. When our country was thrown into a crisis of fear nine years ago by the attacks of a terrorist group, the idea of vigorous use of American power was brought out again by Bush and Cheney and many others, including some Democrats.

Neither the war we entered in Afghanistan to punish that state for harboring the 9-11 terrorists, which was immensely popular across the country, nor the war we entered in Iraq, which was sold to the country with lies, is going well. It’s hard to argue that the peoples of Iraq and Afghanistan, so many thousands of whom have been killed, wounded or made homeless, are better off. Our own losses, although much less in numbers, are still devastating to us, as the funeral of every returning dead soldier demonstrates.

The main problem has not been the lies of our politicians, but the whole policy of intervention. We can’t create a safe world, especially not by sending more arms overseas than the rest of the world combined. We are having trouble protecting ourselves from the extremely violent drug war on our southern border, where nearly 30,000 people have been killed in the past five years, far more than our losses in both wars.

It’s time to relearn the two major lessons of the 1960s: we can’t accomplish our goals with armed force, and when we try, our goals become muddied. I know those lessons were very hard to learn, because I saw my generation and the whole country struggle with them. Accepting that your government might create a big lie to enter a war, that our self-image as historical good guys was not matched by our behavior at home and abroad, that those who ran the war with utmost confidence would hide their lack of success until the truth was finally revealed -- no people wants to find that out about itself.

We can win the struggle to make the world more peaceful and secure, to create better lives for more people, and to expand democracy and equality. But we will be successful only by being more peaceful and more democratic, by becoming a better country at home, by putting forward the hand of friendship rather than the fist of power. We need to get out of the business of world policeman and arms supplier.

We’ll never be as safe again as we would like to be. We could be smarter about being safer.

Steve Hochstadt

Jacksonville IL

Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, September 21, 2010

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Whom Do You Trust?

Lately we have been hearing how awful government is. Not governments like Iran or North Korea, not Communists or military dictatorships, but our own government. I find this ironic, since I am now teaching a course about the 1960s, when people who criticized our government were told, “Love it or leave it.” Now the defenders of government are told they are un-American. It’s so confusing when political groups change their slogans into the opposite, and act like nothing has happened.

Those who want government to go away, or at least get a lot smaller, seem to have two ideas about how to shrink government: cut out the “waste” and let private companies take over many of its functions. Their assumption is that the private sector can do these jobs better and cheaper. Is that true?

Where is the waste in government spending? One place that many people focus on is how much government employees get paid and other perks of their jobs. Here in Illinois, the cost of the Governor’s mansion in Springfield has become a campaign issue, since that house is rarely used. The pensions that government employees earn are condemned, because paying them decades into the future might require even higher taxes.

Why would anyone believe that private companies would save us money on salaries? No government official, including the President, receives even the average salary of the bankers on Wall Street, the executives of the oil companies, or the directors of any of the large corporations who dominate our economy. The new CEO of GM will make $9 million. No big deal, because that is less than the average pay of CEO’s in the corporations in the S&P 500. Then there are the private jets, meetings at Caribbean resorts, company cars, and country club memberships that are standard fare for corporate leaders. Why are the salaries of government employees excessive, but not those of corporate employees? Would “big government” critics be satisfied when public services are in the hands of multimillionaires?

Okay, if government services were privatized, we would certainly pay top executives much more than we are paying now. How about lower level employees? As a nation, we could save millions, maybe billions, if we transformed well compensated fire fighters, police officers, teachers, and thousands of other government employees into private wage earners. The consequences are the minimum-wage fire fighter coming to put out a fire at your house; your children in the hands of minimum-wage teachers; the minimum-wage clerk in a government office responding to your problem. Public services would be delivered by Wal-Mart-style “associates”, not quite full-time employees with no benefits.

The savings would be enormous, because there are around 20 million government employees. Imagine the reduction in tax rates if we converted those all middle-class salaries with good health-care benefits to minimum-wage salaries with minimal benefits. Of course, the national economy would suffer, as housing, consumer goods, construction, and air travel would decline, because so many families with money to spend would be converted into low-income families just scraping by. Millions of jobs would be lost as our economy came to resemble a third-world nation, with a small number of wealthy people and a tiny middle class. But think of the tax benefits!

Here’s the clincher: there would be so much less corruption! All those worries about government dishonesty would be banished, as we turn over everything to the private sector, which has earned a reputation, especially recently, as paragons of economic virtue. It would be like replacing that corrupt, inefficient, and dishonorable waste of your tax dollars, the US Army, with the honest and capable work of Xe Services, formerly Blackwater Worldwide. BP could oversee oil exploration, Morgan Stanley would run the Federal Reserve, and the former executives of Enron, now thankfully available for public service, could create a national energy policy.

Although I can’t imagine that anything could go wrong with this plan, just in case, we could rely on Fox News to organize government communications and keep us well informed.

Steve Hochstadt

Jacksonville, IL

Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, September 14, 2010

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Why I Will Keep Talking About Race

The following essay is a response to an article by a local opinion columnist saying that everyone should "shut up about race".

Why I Will Keep Talking About Race

Jay Jamison writes that everyone should “shut up about race”. But I won’t.

I will keep talking about race because Jacksonville’s history is permeated by race. While slavery dominated the South, Jacksonville had a significant free black population in a section of the city called Africa, south of College Ave. Before the Civil War, abolitionists, many at Illinois College, clashed with defenders of slavery. But race as a defining element of social life in Jacksonville was not only an issue of the 19th century. Well into the 1960s black people in Jacksonville were openly discriminated against in downtown stores. Racism is a living memory for many black and white residents of Jacksonville.

I will keep talking about race because we keep learning more about how racism in the United States operated. James Loewen’s eye-opening book, Sundown Towns (2005), describes how small towns all across America kept African Americans out by passing laws that non-whites had to leave by sundown. These communities remained segregated into and past the 1960s. In Illinois, according to the 2000 census, Scott County and Mason County still had no black households, and Stark County had one.

I will keep talking about race because my students cannot understand American history without knowing the role played by racism. Official and unofficial discrimination against virtually every ethnic and religious group who were not Anglo-Saxon Protestants determined social and economic life in America for most of our history.

I will keep talking about race because my life is a product of racism. My father came to the US at 18 because he had to flee his home in Vienna or be killed by the Nazis. He found a haven in America and within a few years was back in Europe wearing a US Army uniform. Thousands of other German and Austrian Jews, including my grandparents, were denied entry by antisemitic immigration laws and practices of the US government. After I was born in 1948, antisemitism still determined where Jews could live, what colleges we could attend, what organizations we could join, and where we could work. I have seen antisemitism gradually dissipate in America, but not disappear. Within the past few years, I heard a speaker talk about being “Jewed” at a public gathering here in town.

I will keep talking about race because my brother, who lives in eastern Pennsylvania, tells me that “nigger” is common parlance among white people he meets. Racism is still widespread in America. A survey conducted this year by the University of Washington found that more than half of whites agreed with the statement: “It’s really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as whites.”

I will keep talking about race because a candidate for Senate in Kentucky has said that he thinks it is wrong that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes racial discrimination by private businesses illegal. Unless one agrees with Rand Paul, it is important to defend the civil rights won in that hard fight against racism in the 1960s.

I will keep talking about race because that is what prevents and eliminates racism. If young people in America are less racist than the older generations, it is because they have heard open and truthful talk about race in schools, in film, in the media. They have learned that racist stereotypes are lies, that discrimination is illegal, and that racism must be fought not only in bad foreign places, but here at home.

It is a remarkable day when a white man tells our black Attorney General Eric Holder, as well as black and white “scholars, activists, and others” to shut up about race. It is a remarkable argument to blame racism on the words of those people who have been and still are discriminated against. It is remarkably ironic to say that the targets of racism are obsessed with race.

Those of us who have felt racism are not obsessed with race. But we know that pretending racism will go away by itself is a privilege of those who have never felt its sting. And we won’t shut up.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, September 7, 2010