Wednesday, February 29, 2012

A Good Neighbor Policy

In February 2011, in response to my column about the growing acceptance of homosexuality in America, the following was posted on the Journal-Courier’s website, from someone who called me “a doddering old man”: “This is Hochie’s most disgusting level of puke. It’s getting harder and harder to spoon down a breakfast while reading this vile vomit.”

This person named himself “Facebook User”, and went on to offer this warning: “I’ll be back next week and the next and the next. . . . I would love to go a few rounds with him in a boxing ring or a classroom. Something about taking a bite out of an unapologetic gay-loving, Christian-hating conservative-loathing hypocritical libtard just gets my juices flowing.”

Behind the name Facebook User, this someone had been commenting in this manner every week. After a bit of internet sleuthing, I found out Facebook User’s real name, Darrell G. Holmquist. He had been hiding not only his name, but his location. He lives in New Lenox, on I-80 near Joliet, 200 miles north of here.

Many people told me that the proper response to an internet bully is “don’t feed the troll”. Nobody who is capable of a discussion, who wants an exchange, who seeks to learn about ideas or people, begins that way. But I tried. I suggested that Mr. Holmquist “might be friendly, respectful to others, and nice to his pets” at home, so it would be better to also act like an adult in the Journal-Courier’s site for discussion.

No such luck. Apparently preferring my “vile vomit” to his breakfast, he kept going with the following: meathead, hyper-leftie, trash heap, outlandishly stupid, White, hyper-leftist ivory tower socialist, diseased mind, lunatic.

Mr. Holmquist and his colleagues of internet invective are like the guy who comes into a crowded room and farts. He contributes something, but it stinks. Only ten-year-olds think it’s clever.

I stopped reading his comments, and unfortunately, also the comments of local people who had something to say. People have told me that he keeps writing. Here are some recent contributions: moron, clown, dim-witted, sick, insane.

Ranters are frightened of seeing black people everywhere, of the gay people in their extended families, of the idea of women’s equality, of science and education. But they lack the courage to face either their fears or their neighbors. Hiding behind internet anonymity, they try to use their anger to prevent the rest of us from discussing politics like friends, neighbors, and fellow citizens. They want us to shout back at them, instead of talking amongst ourselves. They are diabolical, but they’re not insane.

They hope they can scare people away from being personal, from revealing uncertainty, from being thoughtful and honest. Name-calling, hatred, and vilification can prevent people from expressing what they really believe.

The legions of haters, some in it for the money, some from ignorance, some out of genuine hatred for people who disagree with them, pretend to know something that isn’t true. My town, Jacksonville, and your town and all the other American towns are not like that. Many people in our towns firmly believe in conservative or liberal ideas, and thus also believe many of their neighbors, acquaintances, public figures are profoundly wrong about America.

But we don’t call each other a moron.

It is a genuine puzzle to us that our neighbors, whom we know to be friendly, honorable, intelligent, and public-spirited, don’t share our political beliefs. We live with that puzzle. It proves one thing: those people who deride the other side, who deny them intelligence, compassion, logic, and Americanness, aren’t talking about our neighbors.

I am not hoping to shame Mr. Holmquist here and I certainly don’t believe discussing what he does will stop him. He is having too much fun being exactly himself.

But I think it’s important to see the disruptive influences on our community for who and what they are, to name them, even if they might retaliate. They force us to make a choice, maybe as important as whom we vote for: will we let them stink up our community?

I don’t think so. They’ll never persuade us that our neighbor with the wrong political sign in their yard is an alien invader. What a stupid idea.

Goodbye, Mr. Holmquist.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, February 28, 2012

Monday, February 20, 2012

Conservatives and Cars

I thought conservatives liked cars. Not that I can remember any particular moment when I figured out that conservatives liked cars. It’s a feeling born of a lifetime of meeting people and talking with them about their cars and their politics.

But conservatives didn’t like any car. They liked American cars. The early VW owners, who waved at each other on the highway, usually decorated their bugs and vans with flowers and peace signs. Maybe the country club set imported cars from Europe, but the typical American, the Marlboro Man, the NASCAR fan who really cared about cars, bought only from Detroit.

In the 60s, when I first began to care about cars and politics, the guys with the muscle cars, the jacked-up cars, the loud cars, did not usually march with anti-war protesters. They were more likely to be leaning on their cars, staring at them and their funny clothes.

So Detroit is a perfect conservative symbol. A family can put love of country right in its driveway. Buying a car is the biggest investment in American manufacturing that a family can make.

Americans didn’t invent cars, but we invented cars for the masses, a triumphant blend of capitalism and individualism. Millions of vehicles coming out of Detroit were especially suited to the American landscape. Station wagons and pickup trucks made the promise of individual freedom in transportation come true for any American family.

Any white American family, that is. No black family could travel as freely as whites until the 1960s, and it’s still iffy. But white or black, buying an American car was an affirmation that we make what we need, we support each other. As much as flying a flag, a car from Detroit was a symbol of American patriotism.

How natural then for an American car manufacturer to pay millions of dollars for two minutes at halftime on Super Bowl Sunday to herald their triumphal return from the near-dead just three years ago. What a coup to recruit Clint Eastwood, the most famous Republican ex-mayor in the world, who rarely does commercials.

Here is what Detroit asked Eastwood to look us in the eyes and say: “It’s halftime in America, too. People are out of work and they’re hurting. But we all pulled together. Now Motor City is fighting again. Seems that we’ve lost our heart at times. The fog of division, discord and blame made it hard to see what lies ahead. But after those trials, we all rallied around what was right and acted as one. Because that’s what we do. We find a way through tough times, and if we can’t find a way, then we’ll make one.” We’re with you, Clint!

Well, not all of us. Conservative political voices went nuts. The next day Karl Rove appeared on Fox News to say, “I was, frankly, offended by it. I'm a huge fan of Clint Eastwood, I thought it was an extremely well-done ad, but it is a sign of what happens when you have Chicago-style politics, and the president of the United States and his political minions are, in essence, using our tax dollars to buy corporate advertising.”

Maybe I should have seen it coming in January as John Boehner sat in steely silence when President Obama told Congress that General Motors was once again the #1 car manufacturer in the world. It turns out that’s not an American message any more. Conservatives don’t like what happened in Detroit. Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney, today’s front-runners in the Republican presidential race, are running in Michigan on their opposition to the rescue of American cars and trucks.

Republican politicians seem to be attempting the mass hypnosis of the American public. They want us to believe that Silverados and F-250s and Rams are symbols of Obama. If Clint’s Super Bowl words are a Democratic message, what part of it don’t Republicans like?

Karl Rove and John Boehner, visionary and pragmatist, the ideologue and the vote counter, right at the center of Republican politics for the entire 21st century, agree on this: We hate Obama. Obama helped Detroit. A union is involved. The revival of American cars is a Democratic success story. So take your Detroit jobs and shove ‘em.

I think Republican Party leaders have made a big mistake. Hatred for President Obama and anything that Democrats do blinds them to their own constituents. I still believe that conservatives like American cars. It’s only conservative politicians who sneer at them.

Maybe that’s why Eastwood, who last year couldn’t recall ever voting for a Democrat for President, recently said, “there was a Republican philosophy that I liked. And then they lost it.” Looks like conservative Americans will have a tough choice in November. Clint Eastwood won’t be on the ballot.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, February 21, 2012

Monday, February 13, 2012

The End of the Dog

Everybody I talk to is sad about the closing of the Three-Legged Dog at 27 South Central Park Plaza. That grand space embodies Jacksonville’s history and promise. I offer the consolation of its long history, which demonstrates that the space will continue to be significant to our community.

The Marble Block was built right after the Civil War on the south side of the square. It is one of the oldest buildings in downtown Jacksonville. I don’t know much about the early tenants, but in 1911 the Farmers Bank, owned by the French family, moved into that address, where it stayed for several decades. The built-in safe is still upstairs.

After Farmers Bank took over the former Ayers Bank building at the end of West State St. in 1941, the space was occupied by Hoffman’s Floral Shop. A dropped ceiling was installed.

In the 1990s, Jack Lukeman, from the family which owned Lukeman Clothing Co., located for decades on the east side of the square, took over the space and began extensive renovations. He had the ceiling removed, revealing again the spacious three story-atrium. Lukeman wanted to use this renovated space to bring back another famous Jacksonville institution, Merrigans.

Since the early 20th century, Merrigans had been a confectionery and sandwich shop on West State St. It had a beautiful carved wooden bar back with huge mirrors, and wooden booths in back. The “urban renewal” craze of the 1970s, which did so much damage to American downtowns in the name of progress, led to the tearing down of the building that housed Merrigans. The classic furnishings traveled to Springfield, where they became part of the lunch counter at Famous-Barr, a branch of the St. Louis department store, in the new White Oaks Mall. Eventually the lunch counter closed, Famous-Barr became Macy’s, and the furniture moved on to another city.

Jack Lukeman located the old Merrigans fixtures and installed them at 27 South Central Park Plaza to create Merrigans Old Place, a shop selling sandwiches and sodas in the 1990s. But those years were not kind to downtown shops, here and everywhere else in America. The Achilles’ CafĂ© and then Due Gatti (Two Cats) continued to serve food and coffee in that location, until Joe Racey created the Three-Legged Dog, which opened in April 2007.

For Racey, and his downtown collaborators Joy French Becker and Tom Grojean, the Dog and its neighboring buildings were among the early investments in the comeback of downtown Jacksonville. Since 2007, the square has been transformed from an ugly reminder of urban renewal to a potentially beautiful and commercially functional center of a revived community. The square once again provides a calm space at the heart of town. Around it, renovations inside Art Eclectic Gallery reveal the bones of the venerable Hockenhull building, Jacksonville Art Glass creates new beauty in glass and restores the glass history of local churches, Cheryl Kelly develops photographs into art, and Jim and Sally Nurss have brought a bookstore back to Jacksonville.

Like the Dog, these are all risky investments, bets with family resources that the present and future residents of Jacksonville will find a place for art and literature in their versions of a good and affordable life. These enterprises represent the promise of Jacksonville by reviving our history and imagining our future.

There is more to come. The future of Jacksonville lies partly in its past: the well-constructed buildings in the downtown and the well-preserved homes all around it are worth a visit now. In ten years, our little city could be on everyone’s map as a place to see, to learn from, and to pause in. The short life of the Dog is a key step in that journey, back to the past and into the future. It was a great success. Thanks, Joe.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, February 14, 2012

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Who is an American?

Who is an American?

Throughout American history, from the moment our country was created right into this Presidential campaign, people have argued about who is an American. The great political discussion that resulted in the Constitution resolved that some immigrants to these shores were American and others were only partially human, and thus certainly not American.

The great men who came to political power in the Revolution modeled this exclusive answer: 8 of the first 10 Presidents owned slaves. These beginnings are among the most powerful answers to those who say that we must try to get back to the America of our founders. That America was wonderfully progressive for its time and but would be horribly racist in ours.

For two centuries, the argument about who is an American revolved around race. Slavery was the most contentious social issue over the next half century. Because the existing political parties agreed not to touch slavery, a new party was brought to life by men with a different answer to the question. The Party of Lincoln, the Republican Party, grew out of the idea that slavery should not exist in a democracy. The first Republican to win the Presidency, a Congressman from Illinois, converted that idea into government policy.

At the same time, the deadly expulsion of Native Americans from land that other Americans wanted, and the creation of a special legal category for millions of people who had always been here, was not nearly so divisive. Indians were not recognized as people in the US until the 1879 Standing Bear trial.

The victory of the Union in the Civil War destroyed the institution of slavery, but did not defeat those who continued to enforce a racially exclusive idea of who could be an American. After the failure of Reconstruction to enforce the 14th and 15th Amendments, the federal government just looked the other way as most states redeveloped racial separation and prevented black Americans from being full Americans.

The 14th Amendment still excluded Native Americans from citizenship, which was not granted until 1924. When black and Native American soldiers returned from fighting in World War II, they still could not vote across the US. Only the 1965 Voting Rights Act finally affirmed that race could no longer be used to exclude some Americans from being Americans.

Racism is based on fears about others, nightmarish fantasies about what they will do to us. The irrationality of fear leads to a harshness of behavior that can be itself frightening. Lynching was meant to be frightening to anyone who challenged the conventional racial hierarchy. Lynching depended upon the cooperation of law enforcement; it was the enforcement of racially separatist laws, some written down, some not.

The role of law enforcement in still maintaining the line between “real Americans” and others has made the news recently in East Haven, Connecticut, and New York City. Some police in East Haven systematically persecuted Hispanic residents to enforce the idea that they were unwelcome. The Chief, Leonard Gallo, “cultivated a racist and dishonest police force,” said a local Catholic priest. When the mayor, Joseph Maturo, was asked what his reaction to the Justice Department’s accusation that 4 police officers repeatedly harassed, intimidated, and unlawfully searched Latinos in East Haven, he said he “might have tacos”.

In New York police practice, American Muslims who originated in the Middle East became the official enemy of other Americans after 9-11. After seeing a training film in which the Chief of Police appeared, that argues that American Muslims are potential terrorists, NY police have routinely infiltrated Muslim organizations, spied on Muslim worship, and followed Muslim leaders.

Those who have argued for excluding some Americans from full rights, who have urged some Americans to leave because they weren’t American enough, who wanted to separate and classify and dominate people, have always been wrong. They posed as true Americans by claiming others were not.

The idea that race should determine who is an American has been defeated over the past half century. Another Congressman from Illinois, this time a Democrat, has fulfilled the promise that Lincoln first made by becoming the first black President.

But just as race seemed to lose its potency as a way to divide us, ideology has become the weapon of choice for those who want to exclude other Americans. Following the path forged by Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s, and widened by many conservatives since then, Congressman Allen West of Florida told the guests at the Palm Beach County Republican Party Lincoln Day Dinner that President Obama, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid should take their liberal politics and “get the hell out of the United States of America.”

We can reject the divisive ideas of our founders, still playing out in conservative politics, in favor of another idea they developed. On July 4, 1776, Congress appointed John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson to design a seal for the USA. In August they submitted a design with the motto “e pluribus unum”, “out of many, one.” We still have a long way to go to make this inclusive motto an American reality. We must fight the racial, ethnic, and ideological dividers for the soul of our nation.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, February 7, 2012