Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Looking For A Few Good Characters

Election day is one week away. Campaigns across the country are nasty, with negative ads playing on TV all day. In many races candidates represent stark political contrasts. Unusually there are a host of new faces campaigning for national office. Incumbency, which usually provides almost insurmountable advantages to office holders, seems to have become a liability. The slogan, “I am no part of the political establishment,” looks like a big winner this year.

How should voters deal with candidates whom they don’t know, who have little or no political experience or public record? What elements of their biographies are important in deciding whether they should be elected? American voters used to be heavily swayed by “character”, a catch-all label for the virtues and vices which make up a personality. While it is very hard to prove one has a good character, the revelation of bad character traits has often proven fatal for prominent members of both parties: embarrassing sexual activity ended the careers of Democrats Gary Hart, John Edwards, and Eliot Spitzer, and Republicans Mark Foley and Larry Craig.

This year I sense a shift away from a concern with character. Ideology appears to be a much stronger motivation for voters across the country than the kind of person who represents these ideas. Millions of Americans appear to be ready to vote for the most unpleasant people, as long as they spout the correct political phrases.

When character revelations come late in the campaign, it can be difficult to abandon one’s favored candidate. But why would any American vote for Rich Iott, candidate for Congress in Ohio, who thought it was fun to pretend to be a member of Hitler’s SS troops? I can’t imagine an explanation of Iott’s behavior that would make me think that he is anything but an idiot; what he has offered demonstrates how poorly suited he is to sit in Congress. About the SS, Iott said, “I don't think we can sit here and judge that today. They were doing what they thought was right for their country.” Anyone who believes mass murder can be excused as long as the murderers think that what they were doing was “right for their country” needs education, not votes. Maybe his supporters think Iott’s Waffen SS uniform will enliven C-SPAN broadcasts of Congressional debates.

Carl Paladino is running for Governor of New York State. Paladino appears to be a classic bully, threatening reporters and taunting gay men. An adulterous affair resulted in a child ten years ago. He was unapologetic about sending pornographic and racist emails to his friends, but first had his campaign manager lie about their origin. The latest poll I have seen indicates that Paladino will lose with only 37% of the vote.

Christine O’Donnell, running for Senate in Delaware, is another candidate whose personal failings seem to make little difference to many voters. In earlier political campaigns, she claimed a college degree that she had not received, and lied about studying at Oxford University, Princeton University, and Claremont Graduate University. O’Donnell has no history of success in anything that she has tried, shows ignorance of the basic laws of the US, and was cited many times by the Federal Election Commission for campaign irregularities. A recent poll of Delaware voters shows O’Donnell behind her opponent 51% to 40%.

It appears that all three of these unsuitable candidates will lose. But what surprises me is that they still command up to 40% of voters, who are willing to ignore remarkably bad behavior to vote for unsuitable people to represent them. In other races, such as for a Senate seat in Illinois, Mark Kirk’s repeated lies about his past have barely hurt him: that race remains neck-and-neck. Many American voters appear ready to ignore character, to vote for liars and jerks, as long as they say they will cut taxes or shrink government or whatever the popular panacea of the moment happens to be.

Why give your vote to someone who shows so little regard for honesty or respect for the public? Most of our political problems will only be solved by honest discussion and the ability to forge coalitions, not by ideological slogans. You can’t take back your country by putting it in the hands of dishonest politicians. We need good people of both parties in Congress, not good liars.

Steve Hochstadt

Jacksonville IL

Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, October 26, 2010

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Free Speech about Saggy Pants

Here’s what I think of saggy pants: they look like hell. I associate that expression with my grandmother’s generation of Jewish ladies in New York. It was strong language for those women. I guess my ideas about how to dress are stuck in the past, which explains why I haven’t changed the way I look for most of my life.

But saggy pants bring up more important issues than personal taste. Saggy pants, like everything else these days, it seems, touch our Constitutional rights.

Some outraged Americans want to ban saggy pants in public. If a community can fine homeowners for not keeping their houses painted properly, then why can’t it make people keep their pants up? The power to legislate dress code is already used across America to ban public nudity, so it’s not a big step to ban the display of undershorts.

Opponents of such a ban say that dress is a kind of speech in the broadest sense, thus protected by the First Amendment. The form of dress in this case originated among prisoners, many of whom are African Americans. So some also say that criticizing it reflects racist attitudes.

The most unfortunate recent development in American politics is that Constitutional questions cannot be discussed calmly. Too many people care less about defending our Constitution than using it as a club to smash political opponents. The sea of American public opinion has parted, with only dry land in the middle, where people used to have civil conversations.

Here’s my attempt at reasonable discussion. The call for a saggy pants ban comes mainly, but not entirely, from conservatives. They want local governments to expand their coercive powers into dangerous territory. How do you make saggy pants illegal without creating pages of specifications about what kind of shorts may be seen in public? What social good would come of harassing young, often poor men, who most likely are not at that moment on the job? And why do conservatives want to expand government to enforce their priorities, and then criticize liberals’ efforts to make government do more for our citizens?

The First Amendment says, “Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech....” In 1791 that gave us more freedom of expression than had ever been legislated anywhere in the world. Since then many countries have caught up in democratic practice, which is cause for optimism about how right we were then and where the world has been going since. I like our role as guides on the road to democracy, so I lean towards freedom, even if it is annoying.

And it is annoying, at least to me. I don’t want to see underwear on the street or in the classroom. I can’t imagine why anyone would use one arm all day holding up their pants. I see saggy pants on young men of all colors. It’s not about race, but about place. There’s nothing wrong with saggy pants, except when such outfits are worn in places where self-confidence, pride in the impression one makes on others, and seriousness of purpose are important. Prison fashion communicates disdain for these values.

Communities should not ban inappropriate dress. The writers of our Constitution did a wonderfully unprecedented job of balancing powers given to elected governments with the rights of voters to be free of government control. A clue to the motivating beliefs of the founders is that they first authorized the federal government to exercise a wide range of powers, and then made the limitations on government into a postscript. That balance has been adjusted many times since then. Only in 1925 did the Supreme Court decide that the First Amendment also applied to the states, and thus to local governments.

I believe in that balance, in maximizing freedom from government, while trying to use government to increase the welfare of all citizens. I guess that makes me a liberal, since conservatives have consistently asserted the power of government to limit all kinds of expression, while questioning any use of government to help Americans in need.

But like conservatives, I am not thrilled about every new fashion that induces young people to scar and puncture and bare their bodies, shave their heads, or hide inside hoods. Saggy pants always make me wonder about how their wearer sees his place in the world. I’m open to changing my mind, however, to learning more about what saggy pants mean to their wearers, to hearing other people’s views. These days, such talk is heresy. If you don’t treat everyone who doesn’t share your pet peeves with disdain and anger, you’re weak, compromising, fuzzy-minded, and probably not even a real American. Guess that’s me.

Steve Hochstadt

Jacksonville IL

Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, October 19, 2010

Monday, October 11, 2010

Big Airports and Big Government

Every time I am in an airport, I think about big government. There are 20,000 airports in the US and the federal government oversees every one. Not only are there volumes of federal rules about airports, but the FAA controls every flight of the 5000 airplanes that are in the air at one time every day. Any government which does all that has to be big. But recently politicians and voters on the right have created a barrage of criticism of “big government”. For them there is nothing good about government and nothing that private enterprise could not do better.

So here’s an idea: let’s take the federal government right out of the air travel business. Let’s get rid of all those regulations that cost us passengers money. Let’s fire all those bureaucrats paid by our taxes to manage air travel from Maine to Hawaii. Let’s give the airports to United Airlines and Boeing and Starbucks and CNN, and some banks, and lots of rich people who control all those businesses. Maybe they could save money by shortening the time between takeoffs. Certainly there are more services that could be sold to first class ticket holders, to speed them to their seats on the plane, as the rest of us watch them go by. And if all these gigantic corporations want to build an airport right in your neighborhood, let’s just get government out of the way of profit!

That’s obviously a joke, because nobody with any sense would trust big corporations to put our safety first. Nobody would trust big capitalism to create a democratic process for making important decisions about airport noise. Nobody would trust big capitalists to protect the interests of the less fortunate among us. In the free market, if you don’t have money, you don’t vote.

Airports are just one example of the importance of government in many areas that mean safety for our families, like school buses, industrial waste products, automobile design, toy manufacture, restaurant inspection, drug testing, and I could go on and on. But I hear conservative politicians say with astonishing repetition that big government is bad and big business is our friend. “Big government” means all those things the speaker doesn’t like, which is probably a fraction of what government does. “Big business”, well, they don’t actually say “big business”, that doesn’t sound friendly enough. So they say “the free market”, by which they mean all those good qualities of American commerce, some of which are imaginary, like the nutritional value of their food products. All the inhumane, unsafe, greedy consequences of the lust to make more money just disappear in the imaginations of free market ideologues.

When I remarked to the businessman next to me as we landed about how much construction we saw in both St. Louis and Chicago airports, he said only this: “A lot of tax money to spend.” Out of all the reactions he might have had, that was a surprising one. The possibility that these projects represented thoughtful planning for the future, improvements in service to passengers, economic development for those cities, the entrepreneurial impulses of the airlines, or good jobs for thousands of workers were not relevant. He just had one idea: the government is wasting our money that it shouldn’t even have.

My seatmate looked educated, worldly, and alert. But his response to American life was a mindless repetition of the anti-government propaganda campaign, financed by some of the richest capitalists in the world.

There is much wrong with our big government, at all levels. There is corruption, just as there is in big business. There is incompetence, although I am not sure that anything our government has done could compare to the incompetence of the bankers who caused the housing market disaster. There is waste, probably more than in the private sector, where cutting costs is a higher priority than in public spending. It would be useful to all of us to have a frank and thoughtful discussion of what our governments could do to save money, next year and every year thereafter.

Thus far conservatives are not contributing to such a discussion. Their one-sided propaganda is not about what has to improve, but about how bad government is. I can remember when critics of big government were told by conservatives to “love it or leave it”. If conservatives today have nothing good to say about our government, why don’t they take their own advice, and let the rest of us figure out how to make our great country even better?

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, October 12, 2010