Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Being a Good Citizen

What does it mean to be a good citizen? In the Middle East, many ordinary people are risking their lives to demand governments which respond to citizens, care for citizens, are chosen by citizens. In Tunisia and Egypt, citizens will have the opportunity to choose new governments, a right they have not been able to exercise for decades. In Libya, protesting citizens are being mowed down by machine guns, as Muammar Gaddafi’s government keeps betting on violent repression to keep citizens out of power.

We face no such challenges in Illinois. We have just had a hotly contested election focused on critical issues. No shots were fired. Political campaign crowds were peaceful. The elections were free and fair.

So have we sufficiently exercised our responsibilities as citizens? Is voting the main task of good citizens in a democracy? I don’t think that is nearly enough. Being a good citizen is not mainly participating in elections every November. It means thinking about our neighbors every day. Let me give some examples.

Sidewalks bring up citizenship issues. Our city government cannot afford the machinery to plow our sidewalks after big snow storms. We don’t want our local taxes raised to buy sidewalk Bobcats. We must shovel the sidewalks ourselves, so that our fellow citizens can avoid walking in the streets. One of my neighbors went much further in the direction of good sidewalk citizenship. He paid to have the brick sidewalk in front of his house relaid. Instead of spending his money on home improvements that benefited only his family, he chose to benefit his historic neighborhood. That was heroic local citizenship.

Litter is a citizenship issue. Dropping your junk in public places shows disdain for fellow citizens. Picking up litter helps keep our neighborhoods clean and attractive. Speaking up when we see others littering is teaching good citizenship.

Recycling is a citizenship issue. Reducing the waste that must be buried, and allowing our resources to be reused benefits all of us. It takes extra time to separate our garbage, and that is exactly what good citizenship is – taking time and effort to do something good for our community.

I pick these mundane examples deliberately. Most of us are capable only of small deeds. We cannot leave our homes to volunteer in disaster zones, or make million-dollar contributions, or motivate crowds of people to take action. All we can do is to lead our lives in a way which contributes positively to the larger communities in which we live.

I like to plant trees. We know that planting trees is good for the earth: they convert carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, into oxygen; they prevent erosion; they offer shade and beauty. My most recent tree is a stick about 2 feet high. Its contribution to our environment will be minuscule. But planting trees, cleaning up litter, helping a person in need, donating to charity are like voting. They are what one person can do and what we all should do to make our country work. Alone we feel powerless, but we are not alone. Our future does not depend on the very rich or the very famous. It depends on whether we value the small things we all can accomplish.

It matters how we approach our roles as citizens. If we all rush out and buy guns, scream at people whose ideas we disagree with, and promote hatred of others in our communities, we will live in a violent, dangerous, angry society. If we all shovel sidewalks and pick up litter and take other small but constructive steps to make our lives and our neighbors’ lives better, our society will be healthy, friendly and strong.

Citizen action represents faith in the future and the strength of numbers. Rather than despair about how little difference my one tree can make, I rejoice in the years of beauty it will provide long after I’m gone. One tree isn’t much, but the 50 trees I have planted in the last 25 years already create landscapes of shade and health. Add my trees to those planted by millions of others, and we can transform our environment, make our communities more livable, give our children a better earth.

Steve Hochstadt

Jacksonville IL

Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, February 22, 2011

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Will the revolution succeed in Egypt?

What is happening in Egypt? What does it mean for them and for us?

Those are very difficult questions to answer. The best answers require knowledge of many histories: the history of Egypt and the wider Middle East; the history of American involvement in the region; and the history of revolutions, revolts, coups, and uprisings around the world.

You can=t get that on the evening news. Newscasters are hemmed in by irresistible pressures. They know a lot of detail about what is happening now and little about what happened before. Few of the pretty faces who speak the news know how to analyze events themselves. Their bosses want them to stress the extreme, the dangerous, the lethal, rather than the typical, the complex, or the peaceful. And they have only a minute to tell their story.

Hooray for newspapers! We can give you much more content, in sentences over which one can pause, with ideas that can=t be scrolled across the bottom of the screen.

I am not an expert on the Middle East, but I do know about revolutions. So I can say something about how to think about what is happening in Egypt.

It is very difficult to topple a dictatorship and very difficult to predict when a dictatorship can be toppled. Why did so many Egyptians decide that at this moment Mubarak=s government, never popular enough to do without a constant state of emergency for the past 30 years, might be weak enough to attack? The spark was lit far away, in Tunisia, in December. After nearly a month of growing protests, an aroused Arab population overthrew a dictator who had been entrenched for 23 years.

Suddenly a wave of unrest washed through North Africa and the Middle East. Revolution was exported from Tunisia, but not as weapons or armies. What matters in maintaining a dictatorship is the balance among fear of the government, determination to get rid of it, and confidence that the potentially fatal act of revolt can succeed. The fear was easy to see B that=s by design. Governments which rule by repression deliberately evoke fear by the open use of force against any challenge. One never knows how deep and wide the determination to get rid of a system is, until suddenly it gets defiantly expressed on the streets. That happens at those unpredictable moments when hundreds, then thousands, then tens of thousands of people suddenly believe that they can create change.

For revolutionaries and for ordinary citizens the best confidence-builder is the success of their neighbors. The international revolutionary explosions in Europe in 1848, 1918, and 1989, in Africa in the 1960s, and now across the Arab world demonstrate the power of example.

But few revolutions succeed in fundamentally changing a system. Killing the king or forcing the dictator to leave does not necessarily dislodge the much larger structure of relatives, friends, defenders, servants, cronies, partners, and profiteers from the positions of power they have acquired. Dismantling the power structure takes persistence that is hard to infuse into a popular uprising.

The course of a revolution is never predictable. The stability of the first new government or the fifth, the role of the military chiefs, the willingness of those who came out into the streets to accept whatever new relationship develops between government and people, are all question marks.

Few revolutions result in democracies. Ours did and was exceptionally peaceful. An important factor for us was that American revolutionaries overthrew a foreign power. Much more difficult and deadly is trying to put your own countrymen out of power. The creation of a stable democracy depends above all on the people=s will B how willing are they to bet on democracy as the best long-term solution to the problems that brought them out?

Little depends on what we in the US do. Our best bet is to offer support to democratic institutions, no matter who the likely winner of a free vote might be. We haven=t done that very often.

Steve Hochstadt

Jacksonville, IL

Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, February 15, 2011

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Normal Homosexuality

A few nights ago, we saw a very revealing movie. “No Strings Attached” is a silly romantic comedy. Plenty of skin was shown, but that was not the most revealing feature. I found the portrayal of gay people much more interesting.

The film was targeted at young heterosexual filmgoers. Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman, the current heart-throbs of young people, are the stars, and the main characters are in their 20s, as is the script writer. It had no message except the obvious – don’t give up, love wins in the end. But among the supporting roles were gay men and women, friends of the main lovers. I found it notable that these characters were portrayed as normal human beings, friends and workers, silly or wise, in relationships or searching for one. Their homosexuality was a fact, not an issue.

Is Hollywood trying to push a gay agenda on right-thinking Americans, as some people claim? I think it’s the other way around: Hollywood is trying to sell products. So movie producers, like makers of toys and cars, try to appeal to their potential customers by creating products that fit their ideas. Today in America, the majority idea is “gay is okay”.

The biggest political issue around homosexuality these days is same-sex marriage. In the 1980s, polls showed that about 10% of Americans supported same-sex marriage, while over 70% were opposed. Since then public opinion has been shifting gradually and constantly. Right now, we seem to have reached a tipping point. In August 2010, FOX News asked, “Should gays and lesbians have a constitutional right to get married?” 52% said yes, 46% said no, with 2% unsure.

Gay marriage is the political issue with the greatest opposition. In all polls, about 10-15% more people are in favor of legalizing civil unions. Even more, about 2/3 of all Americans, support hate crimes protection for gays, and outlawing discrimination in housing and jobs.

But even when a majority are supportive, Hollywood has been reluctant to take a stand on controversial political issues. What matters is not just overall support, but support in the particular demographic that buys a product. For silly romances with youthful stars, the key demographic is age. And age makes a major difference in attitudes towards homosexuality. In a 2008 Newsweek poll, when 55% of Americans were still opposed to single-sex marriage, responses were widely divided by age. Among those over 65, 69% were opposed, but among 18-34 year olds, a majority was in favor. Since then young people have become even more supportive.

A likely explanation is that older people do not know anyone their age who is openly gay, so their opposition to homosexuality is an ideological abstraction. Young people are much more likely to have friends or relatives who have come out; being anti-gay means being against their friends, or possibly their family.

Geography makes a difference, too. The states with the greatest support for any issue involving homosexuality are in the Northeast, while those with the least support are in the South. Illinois is right in the middle. A September 2010 Chicago Tribune poll showed that 57% of Illinois voters favor civil unions, the same percentage as in the nation. Civil unions are now legal in Illinois because that’s what the majority wants.

These poll results show that the controversy about same-sex marriage or civil unions is not mainly about the sanctity of marriage. Those who oppose same-sex marriage are also more likely to defend the right to discriminate against homosexuals in all areas of civil life. They don’t want gays around at all.

Although the Westboro Baptist Church proclaims “God hates fags”, and more mainstream Christian fundamentalists like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell echoed this sentiment, I don’t think the opposition to gay rights is mainly about what God wants. The age and geographic distribution of anti-gay opinion is exactly the same as the opposition to civil rights for African Americans in the 1960s or to equality for women in the 1970s. At that time, those who wished to continue discriminating against blacks and women also defended their ideas with quotations from the Bible and assurances that this was what God commanded.

Maybe God changed his mind about civil rights. More likely, Americans changed their minds about what was right and moral, led by young people who recognized the irrationality of race and gender discrimination. Once again, young people, who know gays and who know gays are people just like them, are leading the way to a more just society.

Steve Hochstadt

Jacksonville IL

Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, February 8, 2011

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Guns, Polls, and Too Many Dead Americans

Once again, guns have become a subject of intense political debate. The murders in Arizona, apparently aimed at Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, have dominated the news for a couple of weeks, although more than a thousand Americans have been killed by guns since then.

Nevertheless, most political experts foresee little change in our gun control laws. They cite the powerful influence of the National Rifle Association, which opposes every effort to restrict the manufacture, sale or possession of anything associated with guns. The NRA has been an incredibly successful pressure group. They have been able to turn a minority position into the law of the land, to repeatedly turn back attempts to regulate guns, to prevent researchers from fully investigating the effects of guns on our lives. Their opinions about guns are more influential than the recommendations of policemen.

A majority of Americans favor laws which would restrict guns (a wide variety of polling data can be found at www.pollingreport.com/guns.htm). Polls back to 1990 show that a majority favored stricter gun laws through 2007. In the last couple of years, those favoring stricter laws have dropped to 44%, still higher than those who want no changes. When more specific questions are asked, it is clear that a large majority of Americans favor particular restrictions. When the ban on assault weapons expired in 2004, 61% said they were “dissatisfied”; since then, a majority continue to support a ban on assault weapons. Last year, three-quarters of those polled by CBS News and the NY Times said that private businesses should be able to prohibit customers from openly carrying weapons. A CNN poll in 2008 found that 2/3 said that the Second Amendment protected the right of individuals to own guns. But then 80% said that guns should be registered with local government and that there should be a waiting period after purchase before the gun is delivered.

New polls about high capacity magazines show that nearly 2/3 favor banning their sale. A minority of Americans, consistently about 1/3, favor banning the sale of all handguns, except to police.

Politicians fear the power of gun advocates, but again, a poll indicates this may be exaggerated. In 2007 people were asked if they would be more or less likely to support a Presidential candidate who favored stricter gun control laws: 55% said they would be more likely to support such a candidate, and only 32% said less likely.

Why support gun control? Not out of disdain for hunting or gun enthusiasts, but because of concerns for safety. Since the 1960s, over 1 million Americans have been killed by guns, and there have been millions more gunshot injuries. Every 3 days a child is killed by firearms.

Guns can be useful in defending against criminal attacks. Every year civilians use guns in self-defense thousands of times. But although half of US households own guns, violent criminals are 7 times more likely to shoot their victims than the victims are to defend themselves. Only about 1% of violent crimes are met with gun use by the victims. The FBI says that for every time in 1997 that a civilian used a handgun to kill in self-defense, 43 people lost their lives in handgun homicides.

I come from Maine, where hunting is a way of life and an important source of food. I recently enjoyed venison steaks given to me by a friend. But when people advocate for the sale of magazines with 30 bullets, or oppose the regulation of assault rifles, or argue against the ban of plastic guns which can pass metal detectors, or demand the right to carry guns into Starbucks, then I see more than the defense of the Second Amendment. I see an unreasoning political stance, which makes all of our lives less secure. A legal system which allows a mentally unstable 22-year old to buy a semi-automatic pistol and a 33-bullet magazine needs fixing.

The NRA is not responsible for stifling debate on guns in America. We are. We, the majority of Americans who believe that guns should be regulated in the interests of our own safety, have allowed ourselves to be out-shouted, out-maneuvered, and out-spent. We have allowed a single-minded, uncompromising, vocal minority to put us in danger every day. We have allowed our message to get drowned out. We must be willing to say out loud, what we know to be true: it is too easy to get a gun in America and to kill people.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville, IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier on February 1, 2011