Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Is Gay Bashing a Partisan Issue?

    Bullying of young gay men by their peers is in the news. It happens all the time in schools and on playgrounds, so often that the NBA is running a series of commercials against using the word “gay” as a slur.

    Gay bashing is in the news because of two serious incidents that have become public knowledge. Dharun Ravi just received a 30-day jail sentence, because his secret videotaping of his gay college roommate at Rutgers contributed to that student’s suicide, two days after he discovered it.

    This was a difficult legal case, because Ravi engaged in no physical harassment, just the broadcasting of a homosexual encounter as an expression of his own homophobia. The linkage of this social bullying to the suicide is speculative, so the sentence was light. The judge emphasized that jail time was intended for crimes of violence. Out of this tragedy comes, one hopes, a greater awareness of how homophobia at the individual level hurts its victims in ways that may be unintentional, but are nevertheless predictable.

    The other incident happened long ago. At a private high school mainly for the sons of the wealthy, a group of boys attacked another boy in his room, assaulted him, and cut off his long hair. The gang was led by young Mitt Romney, who wielded the scissors and taunted his classmate. Romney also humiliated other students whom he thought were insufficiently masculine.

    Romney defenders trivialize his actions with a variety of excuses: people did not use the word “gay” in the mid-1960s; homosexuality was not a big issue then; boys will be boys, especially at prep schools.

    Romney said in a radio interview: “I don’t remember that incident and I certainly don’t believe that I thought the fellow was homosexual. That was the furthest thing from our minds back in the 1960s, so that was not the case. . . . I participated in a lot of hijinks and pranks during high school, and some might have gone too far, and for that I apologize.”

    I went to school and college at the same time as Romney did. Homosexuality certainly was an issue for boys and young men in the 1960s. Wearing the wrong clothes, speaking in the wrong way, having the wrong haircut could earn taunts of being queer. Once you were labeled queer, it was difficult to become “straight” again, no matter how much you tried to prove your manliness.

    Homosexuality was not in the news, because few men dared to reveal any sexual preference besides lust for women. But the dangers of being called “homo” were everywhere for boys. Showing artistic interests, being athletically challenged, or lisping were taken as signs by boys everywhere that one of their classmates was different in a bad way. I can’t remember any of my schoolmates who would have wanted to be seen as a homosexual, because that meant daily disdain from peers, daily comments meant to hurt, daily bullying.

    But not everybody bullies. Many boys whispered that so-and-so was light in his loafers. Many boys shouted “Homo!” Many boys pointed fingers and giggled about those who did not fit the crude version of masculinity that passed for normal among adolescents in the 1960s. But gang-leading bullies, assaulting other boys who were different and laughing about it, were as rare then as they are now. I could tell lots of stories about juvenile “hijinks and pranks”, but none of them involved physical attacks, because those are not pranks, they are assaults.

    How could Romney, the ringleader, have forgotten that incident? Was the physical assault on another boy so routine for him? Does he really still believe that group violence is a prank?

    Bullying is currently an Illinois issue. A bill before the state legislature would have schools go beyond criticizing bullying and adopt “a bullying prevention policy”. These policies would define bullying and be clear that it is illegal; explain how allegations of bullying could be made anonymously; and describe what penalties bullies would be subject to, such as counseling or community service.

    Apparently Illinois Republicans are not as worried about bullying as they are about anything which might prevent homophobic behavior. When the House voted 61 to 49 in favor of the bill, the Republicans overwhelmingly lined up against it, including local representative Jim Watson.

    We won’t get rid of bullying if it is called as prank, or, worse, seen as an understandable reaction to queers and homos. A North Carolina Baptist pastor just told his congregation that the way to deal with homosexuals is to put them behind barbed wire until they die off. Another advised his flock to beat their children if they showed signs of being gay. Talk about a bully pulpit.

    What does Romney think of that? What about Jim Watson? Why do so many Republicans wink at gay bashing?

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, May 29, 2012

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Voter’s Dilemma

    The Republican Party has swung to the right, too far to the right for many Republican voters. This movement has not just been a shift of weight, but rather a full-throated repudiation of the legitimacy of moderate Republicanism. And of moderate Republicans.

    In order to compete as a Republican presidential candidate, in a field crowded with extreme conservatives, Mitt Romney felt he couldn’t afford to present any moderate alternative, so he became a "severe conservative". Influential and experienced Republicans like Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, crushed in a primary by the Tea-Party-backed Richard Mourdock, are tainted by their history of forging political compromises rather than scoring political points. Mourdock's campaign criticized Lugar's willingness to work with Democratic lawmakers.

    The current national Republican list of enemies far exceeds anything Richard Nixon compiled: "liberal traitors", the President, government employees, unions, and now any acceptance of their own policies of the late 20th century. What if you are a Republican who sits next to a liberal in church?

    I have friends with exactly that dilemma. I live in the home town of Paul Findley, in the home state of Charles Percy. They represented Illinois in Congress from the 1960s into the 1980s, and represented the ideas of the Republicans I meet every day at the County Market and BJ’s restaurant, at ball games and at the nursing home, in their homes and mine.

    One of the facts of small town American life, which is often held up as the American ideal, is that nasty partisan politics are tempered by the bonds of friendship and the need to get along with your neighbors. Nobody runs for local office here on the social issues that seem to inflame the newly extreme national Republican Party: women’s rights, the separation of church and state, the efforts of gay Americans to be treated with respectful equality. Nobody here seeks votes by saying that the other party are traitors to real American values, because it would break up the bowling league or poker game or literary society.

    Virtually all elected city officials are Republican, but none of them has pursued the anti-government vendetta that has been pushed by every Republican candidate for President. In office, they try to use government to make our town better, not starve government until it dies.

    Mitt Romney might have attracted the allegiance of my Republican friends, if he had not forcefully and repeatedly repudiated the policies he advocated as Governor of Massachusetts. That was a fateful and irrevocable choice. If Romney now backs away from the extreme positions he has run on thus far, he won’t become a moderate, he’ll be a liar.

    In democracies, when many people feel unrepresented by the existing parties, when both their politics and their morality remain unrepresented, a new party might form to give them a public voice. That’s how the Republican Party began, as a political and moral alternative to the Democrats, the Whigs, and the Know Nothings.

    There are other parties to vote for, but Obama and John McCain split 98.6 % of the votes in 2008, and only Ralph Nader won more than half a percent. Besides the Republicans and the Democrats, no other party shows any signs of making a political difference.

    We have an entrenched two-party system. We would all gain from giving up routine party allegiance and thinking carefully about what candidates represent, both politically and morally. Some of the recent candidates for national office from both parties have been morally shady or politically ignorant, or both. Voting for them because of party loyalty means encouraging one’s party to put forward more people like them. Imagine John Edwards and his mistress and their child in the White House.

    What do you do if you stand right between the parties, not as liberal as the Democrats and their leader, President Obama, not as conservative as the Republicans and their leader, Mitt Romney, have become?

    Split your ticket. Find the candidates who are closest to representing you, regardless of party, and don’t vote for candidates who don’t represent you, regardless of party. Force the parties to listen to you, not take your vote for granted.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, May 22, 2012

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Uncertainties at 90

    My mother turned 90 the other day. Her birthday brought all her immediate descendants to Jacksonville: my son and daughter and daughter-in-law, my brother and his wife, and his daughter. We ate her favorite foods, I made a chocolate cake, and we remembered or mis-remembered family stories from long ago.

    A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about uncertainty, the many important things that we don’t know, but would like to know. My mother’s major uncertainty is her health. At 90, every day begins with the question, how will I feel today? Is this a headache or the first signs of stroke? If my legs are weak today, will they ever get better?

    Any day can bring a crisis. A good day is when nothing happens.

    My mother lives at the Jacksonville Skilled Nursing and Rehabilitation Center. She is happy there, because she receives extraordinarily good care from a knowledgeable, friendly, and helpful staff. The parking lot is rutted with potholes, but every day my mother is greeted, asked how she feels, and helped to live a dignified life.

    Once a month, nearly a dozen women from all phases of JSN’s operations come together into my mother’s room and report on their observations of her health, mood, accomplishments in physical therapy, and eating habits. They ask for her opinions about her care, and whether she wishes to have any changes made. On the basis of their combined knowledge, they plan for the next month’s care.

    The medical and scientific uncertainties connected with my mother’s health are a very immediate concern. Although most days are similar and uneventful, sometimes crucial decisions must be made within hours. Everyone must be ready to think about all the evidence we have, all the alternatives for action or inaction. I and all the professionals at JSN are prepared at all times to make significant decisions to keep my mother healthy.

    Medicine is a highly developed branch of science. In other kinds of science, there is usually much less pressure to come to a decision. I believe that the more distant a particular kind of science is from our immediate needs, the more resistant people can be to reaching potentially unpleasant conclusions. Global warming is a good example. Thus far, warming has had little effect on most people’s lives, and it will be years, even decades, before the consequences of climate change affect our daily lives, or those of our children and grandchildren. So the necessity of paying attention to all the evidence, of applying careful logic, of reaching careful conclusions, can easily become subordinated to wishful thinking and unwillingness to abandon comfortable assumptions. Even when 97% of the world’s scientists engaged in climate research (yes, 97%) agree that global warming caused by human actions is occurring now, it’s easy to close our eyes for one more day, to remain skeptical even in the face of overwhelming evidence, to refuse to believe.

    When all those health care experts gather in my mother’s room and lay out the evidence they have gathered about my mother’s condition, I listen carefully. If they all said that they thought my mother had a particular ailment which should be treated because it could get much worse, I would take notice. I might expect that there would still be some disagreements among them, some uncertainty about exactly what the causes were and how to treat that condition. Practicing medicine, as in every scientific field, is not like following a cookbook recipe. We expect some uncertainty.

    If one of the experts said she disagreed with all the rest, and argued that my mother was fine, that there was no problem, and that we should do nothing, I would listen to her, too. But the consensus of the experts would be a powerful persuader. There’s no room for delay, no luxury of putting off uncomfortable decisions. In this case, thinking that the majority of experts were perpetrating a hoax, had some selfish agenda, were lying about my mother’s health would be irresponsible.

    My mother’s health is too important for such political games. So is the health of our Mother Earth.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, May 15, 2012