Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Can the Bible's Every Word be a Moral Guide?

Not long ago, I attended an unusual Jewish ceremony – five adults were officially converted to Judaism in a b’nai mitzvah. Judaism is not a proselytizing religion, so conversions are infrequent. The reading of the Hebrew Torah, what Christians call the Old Testament, is the central feature of the ceremony, as it is in every Jewish service.

Each person prepared a commentary on the passage to be read in the synagogue that week, which contained rules for the ancient priesthood from Leviticus. There was a sentence about how adulterous women should be put to death, Leviticus 21.9: “And the daughter of any priest, if she profane herself by playing the whore, she profaneth her father: she shall be burnt with fire.” But the words I keep thinking about excluded various kinds of handicapped people from full religious rights as Jews. In Leviticus 21.18-20, the Lord tells Jews that the following people were not allowed to make offerings to him: “a blind man, or a lame, or he that hath a flat nose, or any thing superfluous, or a man that is brokenfooted, or brokenhanded, or crookbackt, or a dwarf, or that hath a blemish in his eye”.

The rabbi, Barry Marks, like the other participants in the service, wanted to be clear that he disagreed with these idea, because they represent attitudes which have caused untold grief in this world and which we have recently learned how to get beyond, if not yet fully successfully. He also offered a way of understanding the very different people who lived under those rules and what they might have been thinking so long ago.

There are many passages in both the Torah and the New Testament which represent ideas and beliefs that I reject, and that American society for the most part rejects, officially and personally. For example, in Deuteronomy, God demands that Jews kill anyone who tries to entice them from proper worship of Him as the only God. That seems to contradict His other injunction, “Thou shall not kill.”

In my course on the Holocaust, which I will teach again in the fall, I quote this passage about Jews from John 8.42-47, said to be from the mouth of Jesus: “If God were your Father, ye would love me . . . Ye are of your father the devil . . . ye are not of God.” For centuries Christian leaders, Catholic and Protestant, defended antisemitic practices by pointing to that and similar passages in the New Testament. Only after the Holocaust, in which Christians all over Europe participated in the mass murder of Jews, did Christian religious leaders finally reject their validity as representing truth.

Transforming social assumptions is a long and contentious process. Until just a couple of centuries ago, slavery was taken for granted as a normal organizing principle of human society. Many passages in both Bibles describe slavery as a matter of fact. Enlightenment thinkers in Europe began to question the morality of slavery in the 18th century. They also developed new ideas about government which inspired our Revolutionary American founders. Although many early American leaders disapproved of slavery, legal inequality was so deeply integrated into American society and economy that the continuation of slavery was written into our Constitution. Slavery’s presence in the Bible allowed its defenders in America to quote scripture as proof that God accepted slavery.

Judgments about slavery are one of many areas where fundamental moral understandings have changed since the Bibles were written. In contemporary America, we see this gradual process of emancipating society from ideas written down thousands of years ago in the controversy about how to think about homosexuality. Both those who accept homosexuality and those who condemn it can find Biblical passages to support their social ideology.

There are many Biblical passages which reflect ideas that modern people find abhorrent. Disagreements about how to understand the Bible are often arguments about which passages are to be taken as moral guides and which ones should be ignored. Arguments about how to understand religious texts divide every religion. Jewish fundamentalists assert that words in the Torah prove that Jews should control parts of the Middle East where other people live. Muslims argue about whether the Koran tells them to kill all “infidels” or not.

I don’t understand the argument that everything in the Bible should be taken literally as a moral guide. I see that argument used to support many ideas that lots of people have. I don’t hear it used to support ideas in the Bible that few people have, from burning adulterous women, to having slaves, to the difficulty of rich people getting to heaven, as Jesus is supposed to have said. I see people who claim that the Bible should be our literal moral guide adopting very different stances toward passages which fit their social ideology from other passages which contradict their economic self-interest. The Bible is a sprawling document full of contradictions. So-called literalists choose which passages they want to follow on the basis of principles which are very modern, far from the ideas and attitudes of Jews and Christians thousands of years ago.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, July 26, 2011

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Traditions at the County Fair

I went to the County Fair last week, around the corner from my house. I run my dogs on the Fairgrounds, and the space is usually a quiet oasis in a busy city. The Morgan County Fair fills that space with exactly what generations of people have sought at a county fair. You can get food on a stick. You can pet the hogs. You can hear good music.

There were kids everywhere: babies in strollers and teenagers checking each other out and everyone in between. Behind the scenes, too, children displayed their creativity and skills. In the Junior Progress Fair at the 4-H building, children from 8 to 18 showed off their hard work in 20 categories of fresh vegetables, 11 kinds of cakes, plus breads, sweatshirts, photography, and floriculture.

The organizers created lots of awards for young entrants – best daylily and coleus, best angel food cake and best in show for preserves, best mounted still life photograph. Kids had followed recipes, tended gardens, and composed photographs, and now they were being recognized and congratulated.

Illinois 4-H says its purpose is “To help youth learn skills for living.” That education “empowers people to voluntarily help themselves and others.” The collective efforts behind the Morgan County Fair youth exhibits are exactly what our youth need to learn to live well. They will need other ideas and skills that they learn in school, in jobs, and at home, but the traditional 4-H skills are central to American life, in rural Illinois and everywhere else.

Kids learn from everything we do, so we should keep thinking about everything we encourage them to do. Not all traditional children’s activities at county fairs teach our youth empowering skills or useful ideas. That’s how I feel about the Princess Pageant.

Here are the rules: “Contestants must be 5 years old by July 5, 2011, and not be 7 by the same date. Contestants will be judged on beauty, personality and charm. Each contestant will be judged in swimwear and a party dress and interviewed at the judges’ meeting prior to the pageant.”

These girls are not old enough to enter the 4-H contests, where seriousness of purpose and planning are required. But they are old enough to show their little bodies in swimwear to meet some judge’s standard of beauty. I guess they need to learn that they can not be charming or display their personality in jeans and T-shirts. For this contest personality means dressing up, and charm is how you display your body.

The Princess Pageant brings up questions for me. Is this what we want to teach 5-year-olds about how they will be judged in the world? Are these the only useful qualities that the fair organizers think 5 to 7-year-olds have? Why should 5-year-olds be sexy?

And why just girls? Little boys are not judged on their beauty, they are not encouraged to be charming, they don’t get to parade in swimwear. That is definitely girly stuff.

I know I’m out of sync here with society around me. My bank and the YMCA, the pizza chains and fast food joints all sponsor the Princess Pageant.

I suppose the Princess Pageant prepares little girls for their lives in the modern world. In our society, men are supposed to look at women as sex objects, even when they are working. In preparation for the 2012 London Olympics, the officials who run women’s badminton have decreed that women must wear skirts or dresses, very short, of course. Because so many of these elite athletes wear shorts, or worse, pants, the officials said, they needed a new dress code to appeal to fans and corporate sponsors. At least that’s the idea of the men who run this women’s sport: 23 of the 25 members of the Badminton World Federation’s council and executive board are men.

Do these efforts to teach little girls to show their bodies and to force female athletes to be sex objects teach skills for living or empower anyone? I would like to get rid of the tradition of educating girls at a very young age to think of themselves as people to be looked at, rather than people who do things.

What could we say to a 5-year-old who asks, “Why am I being judged in a bathing suit?”

Steve Hochstadt

Jacksonville IL

Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, July 19, 2011

Monday, July 11, 2011

Second-Class Citizens

Air travel is an American gift to the world. The Wright brothers first perfected flight in 1903. Already in 1914, the first commercial flight carried passengers 25 miles from St. Petersburg to Tampa, Florida. Vast American distances encouraged the development of commercial airlines. Pan American Airlines initiated inter-continental air travel in the 1930s to Europe and Asia. Later TWA expanded American dominance of world air travel. While much European travel, within smaller nations, took place by train, Americans embraced flying. By the 1980s, nearly half of the world’s total flying took place in the US. I like to think of flying as one of my typically American freedoms, the freedom to move about the earth as I wish.

I love trains. Riding in trains is my favorite means of travel after walking. But as much fun as train travel is, it is not practical for large distances and busy people. For about the same price, I could book a flight from St. Louis to San Francisco for September or take the train from Springfield to San Francisco. By flying I could get from my door to SF in about 9 hours. By train the trip would take me more than 2 days. It’s a bit cheaper to take the bus, and the trip takes about the same time, because our trains are so slow.

I recently attended a yearly board meeting for a little non-profit in San Francisco, with people from all over the country. Relatively inexpensive air travel makes such meetings possible, as well as academic conferences, short visits to relatives, and exotic vacations.

Flying has become more expensive lately, and less enjoyable. Much that used to be included in the price of a ticket has been taken away and then sold back to us at constantly increasing prices: small snacks, reasonable legroom, transportation of our luggage. Even squeezed into a smaller seat, closer to my neighbors, eating my own food, the convenience of air travel is still priceless.

Air travel has always been a partnership between governments and private enterprise. It is overseen by a government concerned about air safety, truth in advertising, and consumer rights, which is large enough to think about everything from manufacture of planes to handicapped access in airports. I would not trust any of the giant companies who carry out our flights to have the public spirit and democratic values of the US government. For corporations, the bottom line trumps such humanitarian considerations. That’s why there is first class.

On my flight to San Francisco, I sat at the front of the second-class cabin and observed what first class buys. It started with, “Would you like juice or water?”, before we took off. Later there was a free snack, served by a steward who worked exclusively in the two rows of first class. that handful of travelers had their own bathroom.

I wasn’t envious. United Airlines insistently offered me the chance to “upgrade”, to first class, for more legroom, for more miles, but I consistently said, “No.” I didn’t want to pay additional hundreds of dollars for more comfort for a few hours.

I don’t mind being a second-class customer, paying second-class rates. But I don’t like being a second-class citizen. TSA is a government spinoff and government-run agency to protect public safety. Nobody likes the elaborate system TSA runs, but we agree it is necessary for our security. I don’t understand why people who paid a commercial airline for a first-class ticket get their own line through official TSA security. Does TSA get more from them? Or are they better people, deserving of better treatment, by everyone, private or public, like other privileges of access that the rich get. Gliding through airport security with their first-class tickets is similar to sleeping in the Lincoln bedroom in the White House, eating special dinners with presidential candidates, having easy access to our legislators to lobby for their special interests.

Democracy means equal rights for all. Every time our government, or those who work in government, give special privileges to those who pay more, democracy is injured. We should all be first-class citizens.

Steve Hochstadt

Jacksonville IL

Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, July 12, 2011

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

More Riches for the Rich

The rich are getting richer. There is no doubt about that. Whatever statistic or measurement one uses, the rich have gotten much richer in relation to the rest of us over the past 30 years. The only uncertainty is political – is that good for the rest of us?

Between 1960 and 1980 the richest 1% of Americans received about 10% of the total national income. This was not an unusual level of inequality – many of the world’s most advanced countries had similar income distributions. But since 1980 the share of national income going to the richest Americans has shot upwards: by 2007, the top 1% received 23% of all income. The richest 0.1% of families received 12%, and the richest 0.01%, 1 out of every 10,000 families, received 6% of all income in the US. At this moment we are unique among the world’s leading nations in this income gulf.

How has this happened? The salaries of our top executives have gone through the roof, while the pay of average workers has stagnated. In 1965, the average CEO of a large corporation earned about 24 times the salary of an average worker. Now they make over 300 times the pay of average workers. The median pay for CEO’s at 200 big companies in 2010 was $10.8 million, a 23% increase over 2009. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says that compensation of workers in private industry rose 2%.

Highly paid executives can pile it on by serving on the boards of directors of other corporations.
Directors at the 200 biggest publicly traded companies received a median $228,000 in 2009, for perhaps 225 hours of work, which is less than 6 weeks (that’s an estimate of Peter Gleason, CFO of the National Association of Corporate Directors, who is not likely to underestimate that workload).

Meanwhile the effective tax rates on the wealthiest Americans have fallen dramatically over the same period. Despite all the propaganda that one hears about how much taxes the rich pay, the richest Americans pay about one-third of their income in federal taxes, not much higher than people who make much less. The Bush era tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans have played a role in this trend, but it started long before that.

Even more startling numbers represent how much of the growing wealth in the US the wealthiest have taken for themselves. For the whole 20th century up to 1980, the richest 10% of Americans took about 30% of the total growth in income. But since 1980, they have taken 98% of the growth, with only 2% going to the rest of us. Since 1997, the average income of the bottom 90% of Americans has declined; all the growth went to the top 10%, and the top 1% saw their average incomes grow from about $900,000 to $1.3 million per year. These data can be seen at www.stateofworkingamerica.org in a very clever interactive chart.

No wonder so many Americans are pissed off. When asked directly about wealth inequalities, Americans don’t like them. In a 2007 poll, 72% agreed that income differences in America were “too large”. When asked what the income disparities were, respondents grossly underestimated their size. Many other polls demonstrate this broad American consensus.

But neither party has tried very hard to protect the poorest Americans from the outsized greed of the wealthy. About half of all members of Congress are millionaires, and all of them are beholden to the very wealthy for donations to their constant campaigning. For decades both parties have pandered to the rich, giving them and their companies tax breaks, such as allowing their sources of income (“capital gains”) to be taxed at lower rates than ordinary income.

Now the parties are sharply split over whether to increase taxes on the wealthy. Republicans are not only firmly against raising the taxes of the rich, they want to cut them even more. Their arguments never mention the kinds of statistics that I have laid out. Instead Republicans make this claim without evidence: they say that the rich are the ones who create jobs, so taxing the rich will hurt job creation. What is true is that conservatives have managed to convince many Americans that they should worry about immigrants and public service workers, rather than the wealthy.

The risky behavior of the very rich on Wall St. put millions of Americans out of work in our recent mini-depression. Now the rich bankers at Goldman Sachs, which has made billions in profits since it was bailed out with our tax dollars in 2008, have decided to send thousands of high-paying jobs overseas. The biggest American corporations are sitting on more billions in profits over the past few years, and are unwilling to hire the workers they laid off.

How much richer do the rich need to be before they begin to create jobs? How much more of our national wealth will the rich grab for themselves before the average American taxpayer says “Enough!”?

Steve Hochstadt

Jacksonville IL

Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, July 5, 2011