Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Being Right or Being Good

We all like to be right. We all know how hard it is to admit that we are wrong.

But we also know how often we are wrong, how many times we get things wrong – birthdays, names, what someone else said, historical facts. It therefore amazes and disturbs me how insistent many people are that they are right, you are wrong, and besides you’re stupid. The ability to offer anonymous and uncensored opinions to the world, that is now offered for free by the internet, has greatly increased the forcefulness with which more and more people assert their superior knowledge and everyone else’s confusion.

But that’s democracy. I like democracy, even though it is messy. I think it is a great advance of human society that we offer so much access to public discussions to so many people. Public debate used to be restricted to the few who possessed great resources of money, celebrity, or connections. The rest of us could just read and hear the newsmakers and commentators, maybe wishing we could get in on the conversation. Now everybody is conversing with everybody else.

This democracy of access means more democracy in politics. Today the cell phone and the internet are serving the same function that the xerox machine served in the final years of the Soviet Union: breaking the state’s monopoly on communication, telling more truth to more people, and ultimately breaking the power of the powerful, as we have seen in the Middle East.

So it’s too bad that universal access also means universally bad manners. Nobody would talk to another person the way anonymous typists send messages into virtual space. Disrespect, condescension, and name-calling has become the normal mode of political discourse. And that makes sense, because so many people seem to believe that they are just saying the obvious: I am right. You are wrong. This is a simple issue. So you must be stupid, and probably a liar.

It all begins with “I am right.” Immediately the conversation is polarized into true and false, good and bad.

There is so much uncertainty in our daily lives, yet so little uncertainty is expressed. That certainty is even more surprising on issues where the writer disagrees with most other people, and most experts, such as those who claim there is no global warming or that evolution is just an opinion. I think that the nastiness increases when the commenter knows that he is in a minority. Then the language, the anger, the vituperation reach full volume.

I say “he” because I notice the macho flavor of so many men’s political expressions. Not only am I right, but I’ll kick your ass. It is amusing to see how much of that bravado exists only on the computer screen.

It’s not merely that the tough guys turn out not to be so tough in real life. Tough or not, pounding your chest works well for apes, but is not successful in human society. Having bad manners doesn’t work in most situations. We have all been in groups which are assaulted by the blowhard, the man who is great in his own mirror, but turns out to be a jerk in company. A few glances around the circle when he leaves are enough to demonstrate how ineffective it is to broadcast truth to your inferiors, instead of conversing with your equals.

I am so old-fashioned. I really believe that being polite, being interested in what other people think, and being open about ideas is better than being right. When Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher, Joe the Plumber, gave a talk here, I sat next to a man I know. He was as enthusiastic about what Joe said as I was unenthusiastic. We were each wrong to the other. But we won’t call each other names, say the other is stupid, or generally act disrespectful of each other. We have talked before and we will talk again. We will say hi and do business.

And in that friendly interchange, we will realize that our firm opinions are unlikely to be the only reasonable ones. If this other good, intelligent person thinks differently, maybe I am missing something. Maybe I could learn from my intellectual or political opponents. Maybe by being a good person, I can get even closer to the truth.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL

Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, March 29, 2011

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Finding the Correct History to Celebrate

A few weeks ago a small celebratory gathering caused outrage in Berlin. A group of ex-soldiers from the East German People’s Army, in uniform, held a private party in a restaurant at the Berlin Zoo. German politicians voiced outrage that representatives of a totalitarian state should be allowed to gather in a public place, display their hated symbols and have fun.

In the very center of Berlin, across the street from the newly restored Cathedral of the last Kaiser, the public debate about honoring or dishonoring German history is changing the skyline. After years of argument, the site of the East German Palace of the Republic, where the rubber-stamp legislature met, is now just a grassy field. Next door, the foundations of the palace of Prussian kings and German emperors are being excavated in preparation for its architectural resurrection. The palace was damaged by Allied bombs, blown up by the East German government, and will now be rebuilt through private donations. Berliners have decided they prefer an imperial palace to a Marxist one.

These controversies about history are played out in every society, and are always filtered through contemporary political debates. Recently Americans have been arguing about the Confederacy and its heritage, prompted by the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War. As in Germany, regional rivalries and the legacy of a failed state divide the country. Our arguments about whether it is patriotic or racist to memorialize that moment in 1861 depend on how one regards the legitimacy of the Southern states’ secession. Because secession came out of a political disagreement about slavery, both sides have become offensive and defensive in their rhetoric.

Although the participants in these historical debates tend to assert their moral superiority and their opponents’ bad faith, their one-sided simplicity actually reflects the nasty partisanship of contemporary politics, rather than the messy ambiguity of historical fact. A wonderful example is the discussion about whether to honor Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest.

Forrest was a slave-trader who made a fortune before the Civil War. In battle, he led his often outnumbered troops to victory after victory, until the final year of the War. But he is also remembered for a great military crime, the massacre of hundreds of black Union soldiers at Fort Pillow in April 1864. In the immediate aftermath of the War, Forrest was one of the early members, perhaps a founder, of the Ku Klux Klan in Tennessee, and became a significant leader of their violent efforts to maintain white supremacy.

Thus far the story seems to provide the simple clarity that can cause citizens to scream at each other. On one side, legendary military leadership in a noble cause; on the other, mass murder in the service of racist self-interest.

But Forrest’s final years complicate that story. After a few years, he left the KKK and disavowed its violence. He promoted reconciliation between blacks and whites. In his final public speech, he addressed a black organization in Memphis in 1875. Forrest said, “I came here with the jeers of some white people, who think that I am doing wrong. I want to elevate you to take positions in law offices, in stores, on farms, and wherever you are capable of going. You have a right to elect whom you please; vote for the man you think best, and I think, when that is done, you and I are freemen. We have but one flag, one country; let us stand together. We may differ in color, but not in sentiment. Go to work, be industrious, live honestly and act truly, and when you are oppressed I'll come to your relief.”

The daughter of one of the organization’s officers gave Forrest a bouquet and he kissed her on the cheek, an unheard of physical gesture of interracial respect for a white Southerner.

In the heat of war Forrest the tactical genius committed a monstrous crime. Later he disavowed the racism and white supremacist violence that characterized Southern treatment of black Americans for another century.

Honoring “great men” is often made possible only by ignoring the ambiguities which made them human, but not so great. The website of the General Nathan Bedford Forrest Historical Society, on which the full speech can be read, does not mention Fort Pillow or the KKK. But Gen. Forrest is worth remembering as an example of how one person can combine the best and worst of human qualities, like those historical arguments which outlive them.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville, IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, March 22, 2011

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

What is Freedom?

Here is why I am skeptical when today’s conservatives talk about freedom. Tea Party adherents have stressed freedom as an issue in modern American life, even more than traditional conservatives. They are willing to go beyond the politics of conventional Republicans to get the freedom they demand. They use the symbols of our American Revolution to emphasize their commitment to a revolutionary view of freedom.

Freedom from what? It turns out that freedom from taxes is not only what today’s libertarian-conservatives talk about most, but it’s also all they care about. Taxes and the deficit, taxes and unemployment, taxes and recovery from the recession – lower taxes are the answer to everything. Even if that were true, are lower taxes the meaning of freedom?

Republicans have been attacking government as hard as they can since they lost Congress and the Presidency. But behind their rhetoric that freedom from government is what cutting taxes means is a whole set of policies of bigger, badder government. Government intrusion into our private lives is bad, unless it asks whether you are gay. Government attempts to influence our health care is bad, unless you would like to get a legal abortion. Federal government imposing itself on local governments is bad, unless it is for preventing local gun laws.

What is freedom? Isn’t freedom more than having a low tax rate? Doesn’t freedom mean the ability to direct our own lives, to influence the big decisions that affect our families, our workplaces, and our communities?

Freedom has always been a slippery and contested idea in America. The founders created wondrous documents about freedom, which have been quoted for over 200 years around the world, but denied their idea of freedom to more than half of Americans.

At that time, freedom meant mainly freedom from government, the kind of government that the founders knew from Europe. They could not have imagined the global power of big business that has developed since then. Americans have fought for and won freedoms from the power of big business to force them to work 14-hour days, to pollute our rivers, to discriminate in pay and hiring against Americans they didn’t like, to create monopolies, to put poisons in our food. As many conservatives are so fond of saying, “freedom isn’t free”. But conservatives now say they are unwilling to pay for those freedoms, through the government agencies which protect us. Fortunately, these freedoms turn out to be important enough that Americans always, in every poll, say they are willing to pay.

One of the most important American freedoms is freedom to operate in the free market. This is not an issue for millionaires, but for average American workers. Freedom to work at good jobs with a living wage and some vacation time. Freedom from abusive bosses. Freedom from discrimination in the workplace, based on race or religion or sex or sexuality. Freedom to participate in workplace decisions.

These freedoms have not been granted by grateful employers to the workers who make their businesses run. They had to be won through decades of struggle, on the job and at the ballot box. They could only have been achieved through collective action, through worker solidarity, organized in unions. Those freedoms are just as important for public sector workers as for those in the private sector. Governments as employers have committed the same workplace abuses as private companies.

Republican politicians see their chance to take those freedoms away from our neighbors who do the people’s work as teachers, policemen, firefighters, and garbage collectors. Americans will gain nothing if the public service workers’ unions are broken. Workplace freedoms are not free, but the savings that taxpayers could get from eliminating collective bargaining for public service unions are minuscule compared to the losses we will see in the services we use every day.

Their freedoms are our American freedoms. Let’s not sell them for a few bucks.

Steve Hochstadt

Jacksonville IL

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

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Value of Collective Bargaining

I have never paid union dues. I have been a white collar worker most of my life, in jobs where there are no unions. But I have benefited greatly from unions.

One of my first jobs was delivering mail for a summer. That was too short a time to join the mail carriers’ union, but I was paid the good wage that they had won through collective bargaining. In college, I worked summers digging ditches and making truck deliveries. The small businesses I worked for did not have unionized workers, but I still benefited from unions. Decades of activism by organized workers had won the 40-hour week, the minimum wage, protection in case of accidents, health insurance, and many other benefits. No matter where I worked, the history of collective bargaining by unionized workers made a big difference in my pay, hours and conditions.

Unions are not and never have been assemblies of angels. Many unions, notably the Teamsters, have a long history of corruption, especially by organized crime. Some union officials have lined their pockets, made backroom deals with bosses, and rigged elections. In this way, unions are like businesses and governments: occasionally they are dishonest and rip off their members, customers, or voters.

But it would be difficult to argue that unions have been more corrupt than various governments, like Chicago’s, or than capitalist businesses, like many on Wall Street. Union leaders, even those whose organizations contain a million members, make only a fraction of what business tycoons take out of their companies. Union leaders and policies are created by the democratic action of their members, unlike the top-down decision-making of businesses. Unions are not perfect, but they represent average Americans much better than big business.

As grass-roots organizations, unions are feared by dictators. All of the world’s dictatorships, whether left or right, have banned free unions. The Nazis and the Communists, for all their rhetoric about representing workers, made unions into state-run transmission belts for government policy. The former dictatorships in Latin America and those in the Middle East which are being shaken today by revolt all made free union activity impossible.

Suddenly in 2011 the right of workers to bargain collectively with their employers is being threatened by state governments in the US. The Republican Party has never been comfortable with unions, because the GOP typically represent the interests of employers. Billionaires fund Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin. By beating down unions, big employers can gain even more power in the workplace. Even though Wisconsin workers have agreed to large pay cuts, Walker, and Republican governors in Ohio and New Jersey, are demanding an end to their right to collective bargaining.

Martin Luther King, Jr., went to Memphis in 1968 to support the demands of municipal garbage workers for collective bargaining rights. They were working below the minimum wage with no benefits. This was a natural extension of his civil rights work. The right to organize and bargain as a group, rather than individually, is a crucial civil right in a democracy. Organized together, workers can bargain with employers on an equal footing. Only the threat of strikes by unionized workers forced employers to institute the 8-hour day, industry by industry, gradually during the early 20th century.

Our current recession has fomented a disastrous competition among Americans who are in economic pain. Although the attack on public service unions is funded by billionaires, its power comes from average Americans convinced that public employees cause budget deficits. Many public sector workers do receive very good benefits, especially health care. The union-busters are encouraging economic envy; they want people to think, “I don’t get such good benefits, so nobody should.” In fact, the pay of public service employees is lower than private sector workers with similar qualifications.

The 19th century robber baron Jay Gould once said, “I can hire half the working class to shoot the other half.” He counted on ignorance and desperation to allow him to divide and conquer. That’s exactly what the anti-union politicians are counting on. They want people to believe that teachers are overpaid and that policemen’s pensions are too high. They want people to believe that knocking down middle-class public workers will benefit them.

If our economy is based on middle-class consumer spending, how will making middle-class jobs less appealing help us? The only people who will benefit are the 21st-century robber barons who are funding the Republican Party.

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