Tuesday, November 30, 2010

What’s With the Pipe, Glenn?

A few days ago, Glenn Beck accused George Soros, a Holocaust survivor, of turning in Jews to the Nazis. Now some people want his head, calling him an antisemite. I don’t agree. His head is worth nothing. Beck’s history lesson shows exactly why.

Beck doesn’t like Soros. Soros is one of the world’s biggest donors to liberal causes, and he has lots to give. He reportedly made $1 billion in an English currency crisis, by correctly predicting that the pound sterling would be devalued. The organization that Soros created and leads, the Open Society Institute, promotes democratic ideals and liberal practices in countries with authoritarian governments. Beck hates the causes that Soros funds.

But that’s all irrelevant to what happened to Soros in 1944 when the Nazis occupied Hungary. He was a Jewish teenager trying to avoid being sent to Auschwitz, where over half a million Hungarian Jews were murdered that year. To survive, Soros had to do some unpleasant things. He once told a journalist that he and other kids were called to the Jewish Council, a group of Jewish leaders forced to transmit the Nazis’ orders to their fellow Jews. The kids were given slips of paper to deliver to Jews in town. When he went home and showed them to his father, he found out they were notices of deportation. His father sent him back out to tell the recipients not to go. Soros was 13 years old.

When he was 14, he took on a Christian identity and found protection in the home of a sympathetic Hungarian bureaucrat. Once, when that man was sent to inventory the property of a Jewish family who had already fled the country, he took young Soros with him for 3 days, rather than leave him alone in Budapest.

Like most Holocaust survivors, Soros has not talked much about his narrow escape from death. His writings are all about his current political interests. So we don’t know much more than what I wrote above. But Glenn Beck claims he knows a lot more. Beck said Soros “used to go around with this anti-Semite and deliver papers to the Jews and confiscate their property and then ship them off. . . . It was frightening. Here’s a Jewish boy helping send the Jews to the death camps.”

Beck’s comments about Soros are a perfect window into his mind. More than other conservative media personalities, Beck uses historical information to prop up his political ideas. In his attempt to play the TV historian, he appears in disguise, dressing up as one of the academics he constantly mocks. Decked out in a tweed blazer, writing on a chalkboard, a pipe in his mouth, he tells his viewers stories about World War II, Franklin Roosevelt and the writers of the Constitution. And about Adolf Hitler -- Beck constantly brings up Hitler and the Nazis.

Real historians try to create a story that could explain as much evidence as they can find. Like everyone else, we bring our own prejudices and assumptions, interests and experiences to this task. About historical eruptions like the Holocaust, every historian and every survivor creates a personal narrative.

No historian would transform the evidence into the nasty claims about Soros, and the Baumbach family who saved him, that Beck broadcast to his 2.6 million FOX News viewers. Beck is not a historian at all. He doesn’t hate us for our “elitism”; his suits cost more than my yearly salary. He worries that we will expose his act.

His antisemitism isn’t the main issue. Our American problem is that Beck the entertainer pretends to be teaching history. Beck’s TV lectures have the same truth value as Jerry Seinfeld’s jokes or Tina Fey’s impersonations.

Maybe less value, because Seinfeld and Fey are honest about what they are doing. Beck isn’t -- perhaps he is deluding himself, too, as most successful con men do. FOX News presents him with a straight face. But we are supposed to laugh, not believe.

I won’t be watching, though. I don’t get Beck’s sense of humor. I can’t laugh when I hear someone call Katrina victims “scumbags”, and I never liked Holocaust jokes.

Steve Hochstadt

Jacksonville IL

Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, November 30, 2010

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Color Blindness

Ever since race became a dominating political issue across America in the 1960s, some Americans have claimed that they have transcended race, they have learned to be color blind. These claims have mainly come from conservatives, who were lukewarm about or openly opposed to civil rights legislation, affirmative action plans, school desegregation, or other policies which attacked racial discrimination. For example, the Texas-based Campaign for a Color Blind America is a conservative organization whose purpose is “to challenge race-based public policies”.

Claims about being color blind are not personal statements. I don’t think I have ever heard a friend say that they are blind to skin color. I hear public assertions of virtue, made to support policy. In April 2008, when a controversy broke out over Sarah Palin’s attitude toward hiring African Americans in her Alaska administration, her spokeswoman said, “Governor Palin is totally color blind.”

These claims typically go further, like this: “I am color blind. My organization, my party, my church, my business, we are all color blind. Good Americans are color blind. So we don’t need to think about race any more. The need for government concern with discrimination is over.” When the Supreme Court in 2007, under the new leadership of John Roberts, decided that plans to desegregate schools in Seattle and Louisville were unconstitutional, this was applauded by conservatives. They especially liked Roberts’ statement, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.

I don’t believe the claims of individuals that they are color blind, and I certainly don’t think that the issue of race in America is a thing of the past. Here’s why.

I was raised by a family that passionately believed in racial equality. My father had been given lessons in racial persecution by the Nazis, escaping with his life and most of his family before all those left were murdered. When he returned to Germany with the US Army, he and other interrogators heard some of the first claims of color blindness, as Nazi prisoners denied everything they had just done.

By the time I was born in New York City in 1948, Jackie Robinson had just broken the color barrier in baseball in Brooklyn. In my family the Brooklyn Dodgers stood for moral goodness, even if their baseball was hapless. When I was young, discrimination was still a live issue for Jews as well as blacks in America.

I learned to believe in the goal of equality, equal treatment of everybody by everybody, even if I have come to suspect that it is a utopian dream.

But I am not color blind. I see color very well. I notice instantly the color of the person I am looking at. Then out come all the things that I carry around in my head about race. That includes my desire to get to color blindness, my experiences in communicating and trying to understand people who look different than I do, my feelings about fellow minorities. It also includes other ideas that I absorbed from my American surroundings, whether I wanted to or not: the idea that blacks and whites are different; that blacks are potentially dangerous; that race matters.

No matter what my rational self thinks, those racist ideas deep in my consciousness never disappeared. I still see myself flinch as a big black man ran towards me on a street in New York many years ago. He was in a hurry, but I only figured that out after he was already past. I saw color and reacted.

That experience tells me how far I still have to go to get to color blindness. Our nation also has far to go. Claiming that we are color blind, that whites no longer have privileges in America, that we need no longer worry about preventing discrimination is nonsense. One need only have observed the reception of our first black President to know how important skin color still is in America.

Steve Hochstadt

Jacksonville IL

Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, November 23, 2010

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Who is the Spendthrift?

Here is our national debt: $13,000,000,000,000. That’s way too many zeros for us to really understand such a number’s significance. It doesn’t help to write $13 trillion, either, because we are just getting comfortable with the concept of a billion. I still find it hard to imagine a life in which someone owns a billion dollars, so I can’t yet grasp a trillion.

To get that deep into debt, our government has been spending like a drunken sailor for years: buying everything in sight without thinking about the future. Every year government payouts far exceed income, and the yearly deficit keeps growing. Conservatives are outraged by Washington’s profligate use of taxpayers’ money. Those spendthrifts in Washington need to take a lesson from the American family, who knows that you can’t spend what you don’t have.

At least that’s what we have been hearing, louder and louder, with more and more anger. But it isn’t true.

I certainly agree with the characterization of our political leaders. They have so zealously been filling national budgets by supporting unnecessary earmarked projects at home, that just eliminating earmarks entirely is no longer sufficient to deal with the fiscal crisis. It’s the claim about the American family’s budget that’s bogus.

It may be a colossal coincidence, but American families also are $13 trillion in debt, more or less. American families have been spending money they don’t have for so long, and with such lack of concern for the risks, that millions have come to depend on the fantasy of ever-increasing real estate prices. For many people inflation was not a fear, but a hope. They would be able to pay back their debts only if their salaries and the value of their homes kept multiplying. Inflation is always the debtor’s friend.

As much as people have been critical of Washington’s spending, the current economic crisis was caused by our own budgetary mismanagement. When the real estate boom turned out to be a house of cards, people’s debts came due much sooner than they had expected. Governments are much less to blame for the current foreclosure crisis than homebuyers, egged on by unscrupulous bankers.

Even if the federal government miraculously cures its overspending problem, the biggest threat to our national financial security will remain: us. It is the American family which needs to stop spending what we don’t have, what we can only imagine having under the most optimistic future conditions.

We won’t get any help from the “free market”. American businesses depend on our deficit spending, as well as on the government’s. They not only push products at us from morning ‘till night, advertising things in every way possible. They also try to shove more debt down our throats. More than once a week, every week, my family’s mail includes an offer to get a new credit card. The American family is finally saving at a reasonable rate for the first time in decades, and economists tell us we have to spend more to get out of this recession.

I think we need to spend a lot less. It might be easier than you think. Consider our national garbage heaps, overflowing with last year’s purchases, last week’s packaging, and tonight’s leftovers. Consider the cancerous growth of the ugliest buildings on the American landscape, the storage centers, where the American family puts away all the junk that it can no longer pretend will ever be useful again. When we cut the waste out of our household budgets, we should have no trouble eliminating our personal deficit spending and bringing the total household debt back down to manageable levels. Only at that point can we point to our representatives in Washington and say, “Take a lesson from the American family.”

Steve Hochstadt

Jacksonville IL

Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier on November 16, 2010

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Do We Have Common Ground?

The election last week, and the intense campaigning throughout 2010, seemed to me to be the most contentious, nasty, negative manifestation of American politics that I have experienced. Both sides predicted the end of life as we know it if they did not win: either the Tea Party would take us back to the Stone Age or the liberals would inaugurate socialism in America. Sharron Angle’s comment about “Second Amendment remedies”, which might have lost her the election in Nevada, was representative of how both sides demonized their opponents, crying “wolf” so loud and so often that it was hard to keep paying attention.

The extreme partisanship of this election, and of the actions and inaction of Congress in Washington and the Legislature in Springfield, represent a major problem for our country. In fact, neither Democrats nor Republicans command a majority of the electorate. Although every poll shows slightly different results, the Politico-George Washington University poll in mid-October revealed a typical portrait of the American electorate: 42% Republicans, 41% Democrats, and 17% Independents. Yet this weight in the center of the political spectrum was ignored by campaigners this season, as they pushed their extreme agendas.

If we tune out the shouting, we might find that we American voters are not at war with each other. Tuesday’s results included several messages about national policy that most Americans agree on. Here they are:

1. Americans are concerned about the deficit. Since the year 2000, the national debt has risen from about 5.5 trillion to 13.5 trillion dollars. The two wars, exploding health care costs, and the near depression all contributed to the accelerated growth in debt. Economists do not agree about how this level of debt will affect our economy over the long term, but it seems certain that the government cannot keep spending so much more than it takes in.

2. Getting more taxes from the rich is not popular. Democrats and Republicans split very forcefully on what to do about the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy. The Republican desire to maintain the tax cuts for households earning over $250,000 does not appear to have hurt them at the polls. In Washington state, where the Democrat Patty Murray won reelection for Senate, voters rejected by a 2 to 1 margin a ballot measure to impose an income tax of 5% on people who earn more than $200,000 and of 9% on those who earn more than $500,000.

3. Voters did not support broadly cutting taxes. In Massachusetts, voters rejected cutting their sales tax in half; in Colorado three measures to restrict state and local borrowing, to cut motor vehicle and other taxes and fees, and to limit property taxes were killed by voters with 2-1 or 3-1 margins. A few specific taxes were voted down, for example, on alcohol in Massachusetts.

4. Cutting back entitlements, like Social Security and Medicare, is an election loser. Most conservatives refused to include Social Security in the programs they would cut. Sharron Angle’s intimations that she would raise the retirement age contributed to her defeat.

5. Congress is not working. An overwhelming majority of voters disapprove of the way Congress has performed, with approximately equal criticism for both parties: only about 30% approve of Democratic or Republican performance. This is a non-partisan verdict. Many more Americans approve of Barack Obama’s performance in office, with poll numbers hovering around 45%. So the verdict on Congress is not mainly a disapproval of liberal policies, but of gridlock, lack of cooperation between the parties, and flagrant use of congressional perks, like earmarks.

These messages are clear, although many politicians pretend they have received a mandate to enact extreme ideas, that in fact are unpopular. Unfortunately, it will not be easy to turn these popular ideas into legislation. It will not be possible to control the growing deficit without doing something about entitlements and about military spending. Without more tax revenue, the federal government and many state governments, like Illinois, will go further into debt.

The deep recession has created a political crisis across America. But getting the major parties to work together in the middle has become less and less likely in recent years. We need statesmen on both sides to offer serious long-term visions and to embrace practical political compromises. I wish I knew who they were.

Steve Hochstadt

Jacksonville IL

Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, November 9, 2010

Monday, November 1, 2010

Happy Election Day!

I did my homework for this election. The commercial media has been telling us that today is a momentous moment in our history. But I don’t trust any of those enormous corporations to tell the whole truth. Some of them use the format of “news” to present ideology, but never take responsibility for their unintentional or deliberate errors. Others are more truthful, but they share the obsession with manufactured drama with all those who sell their news: if it bleeds, it leads. FOX and CNN and MSNBC and everybody in between have been selling a nationwide horserace this whole year. Horses only race for 2 minutes, which is why that is so exciting. Keeping us excited for a whole year costs the networks lots of money for polls, electronic maps, travel to places they never otherwise visit, more polls, and more video. It’s worth it for them: I just read about how campaign advertising is making this recession year a very good one for the networks.

So I’ve gone beyond the TV spin. I read my local newspaper, the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, and a national paper, the NY Times. I went to candidates’ homepages, read digital columnists and bloggers, and followed a variety of polls. I saw the endless signs every time I left my house. I have learned a lot about candidates, political organizations, and wealthy donors. I haven’t believed anything that I saw or read, except the spelling of the candidate’s name, until I found persuasive confirmation somewhere else.

I went to see Joe the Plumber and his local supporters, and I met the Morgan County Democratic Women and their speakers. Those evenings were the best homework I did. The speakers themselves were not especially useful to me. Almost all repeated words they had spoken many times before, offering their audiences simplistic slogans about complex issues, propaganda instead of education. I was more interested in the audiences, my neighbors. I went to see their responses, to understand their motivations, to feel their beliefs, to hear what they clapped for.

I’ve heard about politics from a lot of other people this year. Some write to me about my weekly articles, or even introduce themselves. Those new human contacts are the best part of being a columnist.

Not as much fun are the communications of another group of my neighbors, the virtual group who respond online to my weekly articles. No names, no inhibitions, no responsibility. Many people apparently don’t agree with what I write. That has been the story of my life, but what surprised me was how many angry Americans there are, angry at me, angry at the other party, angry at everybody.

It was all part of my research, trying to get outside of myself and listen to everybody else.

No matter whom I listen to, they all say that this election is momentous. The media did not make that up to sell us cars and toothpaste, although it helps their bottom line. Republicans and Democrats agree on little else, but that this will be a transformative year for our national politics. After saying that, I wish that they both would offer me more about how my family’s life, my community, my country will be better. Instead too many politicians just think about money: money for their projects, money for their friends, money to sell themselves to us. They think it’s all we think about -- as if Tax Day was every day, as if we run our lives by the bottom line.

I was not a neutral observer. Like everyone else, I am looking for something from my government and my politicians. I think government is needed to help us undertake gigantic projects, like maintaining a national highway system, putting the energy we need more under our control, preserving American history and the American landscape. I want government to help those people in America who need help. I want government to protect the people in America who are victims of floods, storms, crime, corporate greed and military terror, even if some of them just arrived here. I want a government which treats all people with a full measure of equality, encouragement and opportunity, and which does not tell me how to live.

I’ve studied and seen many governments. Our American government is one of the best ever! I believe in that simple formulation. That’s why all the parts of my family came and stayed here. So I was looking for politicians who could convince me they would work towards those goals.

Most of what politicians say is useless, as useless as the repetitive pieces of mail I get every day, as useless as their nasty and rarely informative TV ads, as useless as their promises to correct their past mistakes without admitting them, to make money appear out of nowhere for all of us. Maybe they believe that can happen, because it happens for them whenever they need $1 million or $100 million to buy advertisements. Maybe they are just playing the game because they think they have to, in order to do good once in office.

It’s the good that I was looking for -- what did they say was good? Whom were they going to help? Here is what I heard, over and over again.

The Tea Party, its candidates and its supporters, want to help themselves. They complain about their lives, but they never mention the people I see in real need: inner-city students, the uninsured sick, the scarred veterans, the homeless, the unemployed, the cheated, the disabled, the many, many poor. They show no understanding of what centuries of discrimination means to people, either the people they want to keep discriminating against or the people they say should get over past discrimination. They talk a lot about immigrants, but here is all they offer: we probably won’t harass you, if you have come here legally. They can find nothing good to say about our first black President or his family.

Conservatives cheer for politicians and entertainers who question my patriotism and my morality, who say I hate America, who ascribe to me evil intentions and laughable stupidity. If they came to power, I might become an enemy in my own country.

The taunt of conservatives that liberals have bleeding hearts is telling. Why is that bad? Is a stony heart better? Doesn’t every religion on earth urge us to sacrifice for others? George Bush had to campaign as a compassionate conservative, because he knew that normal conservatism displays no compassion. Tea Party conservatism sneers at compassion and praises self-interest.

The Democrats are not my dream team. Their sales skills are abysmal: they have been unable to convince most Americans that preventing credit card companies from cheating us, that keeping our savings and mortgages and stocks from going down the drain, that finally insuring the uninsured are good ideas. They waffle at tough issues, like getting rid of “don’t ask, don’t tell”. They have accomplished nothing on immigration reform. There is no end in sight to our war in Afghanistan. In Illinois the Democrats have just watched while our state slides towards bankruptcy, a problem they did not create alone, but whose resolution should have been their main task for years.

Yet I felt good among the Morgan Country Democratic women. There was a lot of talk about helping others, about how much government can accomplish. Instead of being angry, they were concerned. Maybe they were also naive about solving social problems with government programs, about continuing to spend more than government takes in, about their ability to do good. But they were trying, like Robin Kelly, who convinced me she would use the State Treasurer’s Office to teach Illinois citizens how to better manage money.

I don’t expect much out of our political system. Average people, like me and my neighbors in Jacksonville, or you and your neighbors wherever you live, have never had as much influence as the people who run the corporations, who inherit political clout from their families, or who use political office to stay in office.

I have lots of criticisms of our government. But I still believe in the progress American government has made in my lifetime, toward equality of treatment, toward helping those in need, toward protecting my liberty and my property from the world-wide power of commerce to pollute, cheat, mislead, exploit, and tranquilize our country. I still believe in the American promise that brought my European ancestors here. So when conservatives pause from their incessant ranting about how bad American government is and how bad so many Americans are to tell me I’m anti-American, I naturally look the other way. That’s where I see people willing to make a sacrifice rather than a buck, who want to help others rather than help themselves, who seem to love other Americans. They haven’t been able to solve humanity’s biggest problems, but in a global comparison, they’re doing pretty well.

So I voted for Democrats.

Steve Hochstadt

Jacksonville IL

Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, November 2, 2010