Tuesday, December 25, 2012

All I Want for Christmas is a Gun

This is not about the Second Amendment. Most Americans will never be convinced that the framers of the Constitution were thinking only about a militia when they wrote that “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” So let’s stipulate that Americans have the right individually to bear arms.

On the other side, there is also no argument about whether the government may specify some kinds of weapons which Americans are not allowed to bear. Nobody is allowed to stockpile H-bombs in their garage. Surface-to-air missiles and poison gas are also illegal.

After the so-called St. Valentine’s Day massacre in 1929, in which sub-machine guns were used by some gangsters to kill other gangsters in Chicago, the federal government imposed strict restrictions on such guns in the National Firearms Act of 1934. Since then, fully automatic machine guns, standard issue for military purposes, have been hedged with considerable restrictions for private citizens, making them essentially illegal to buy and own. Nobody complains about that restriction on gun rights of American citizens, including the National Rifle Association. There is no conceivable non-military purpose for machine guns in a civilized society.

So we can also stipulate that the government has the right and responsibility to regulate the ownership of weapons which can kill many people quickly. The question is, exactly which weapons should be regulated?

That brings me to assault weapons, guns which are semi-automatic, meaning that after firing a round, they automatically eject the cartridge casing and load the next round. The shooter only needs to pull the trigger to shoot again, allowing for very rapid fire, about one bullet every 2 seconds. When a high capacity magazine is employed, which carries to the gun 20, 50, or even 100 bullets, a shooter with minimal training could easily fire 20 to 30 rounds per minute for several minutes.

For what civilian purpose is such a weapon appropriate?

People and organizations like the NRA who oppose restrictions on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines argue that Americans need such weapons for self-defense. Criminals have powerful guns, so we law-abiding citizens need the same kind of guns to defend ourselves from attack. How many news stories have you read about a victim of a home invasion or mugging or school shooting who successfully defended themselves with an assault weapon? Imagine the situation: a homeowner hears a strange noise downstairs and gets their assault weapon out of the locked cabinet where it is stored and then shoots the intruders. When these guns are used against people, the purpose is overwhelmingly offensive, not defensive.

Would banning assault weapons and large magazines make a difference? When Jared Loughner attacked Rep. Gabby Giffords in Tucson, killing 6 people and wounding 13 others, he was stopped when he had to reload his 9-millimeter semi-automatic pistol. A similar situation occurred in a Maryland school shooting. Baltimore County Police Chief Jim Johnson wants to ban high capacity magazines, because a teacher was able to tackle a student who was reloading a double-barreled shotgun in that incident. Police believe that Adam Lanza fired at least 30 shots at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, before having to reload.

Our security experts, the police forces across the country, are overwhelmingly in favor of banning assault weapons. Why don’t we do it? It is estimated that the NRA and other lobbyists against restrictions on guns spend thousands of times more money than those who want to limit guns. That is one reason, but not the only reason.

American culture, especially male culture, reveres guns. An American household is six times as likely as a Canadian household to own handguns. We kill more than 4 times as many people with firearms as all the other 30 highly industrialized countries put together.

The response of gun lovers to the massacre of children at the Sandy Hook Elementary School has been to buy and advocate for more guns. The NRA’s leader, Wayne LaPierre, suggested that armed guards be stationed at every school in the country. The same legislators who are cutting funds for education across the country are being exhorted by one of their biggest funding sources to appropriate money for 100,000 armed guards standing watch at our schools.

Meanwhile gun owners are on a gun buying spree, focused on assault weapons. Guns costing nearly $1000 are being purchased by men who worry that the reaction to Sandy Hook might be a revival of the ban on assault weapons which Congress refused to renew in 2004.

What does it mean to possess a weapon which can kill a crowd of people in seconds? I don’t know the answer. I have never owned a gun and don’t want one. I don’t think it defines my masculinity to be able to spray bullets all around me.

I would like to feel safer. But carrying a gun around won’t do that. Seeing men all around me carrying guns, or knowing that men at McDonalds, at the library, or at my school are carrying concealed weapons doesn’t make me feel safer.

Let’s ban assault weapons and high capacity magazines now.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published by the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, December 25, 2012

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Reading and Writing

In all the seat pockets of my Amtrak train to Chicago were glossy flyers advertising the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books and videos. That’s a marketing package any author would die for – links between books and videos advertised daily to thousands of potential customers. No wonder  Jeff Kinney has sold 75 million copies of his Wimpy Kid cartoon books.

I have looked through the Diary of a Wimpy Kid. The drawings are cute, but the idea is not original and I found the text uninteresting.

Diary is a book for our times: big print, easy to read in one hour, diverting but not challenging, leaving little trace afterwards. Maybe it means we have come one step closer to a future without books.

Books are an endangered species. Reading itself, as entertainment and education, has long since been replaced by more visually stimulating pastimes: television, video games, smart phones.

In the past 30 years writing has changed, too. First email, then texting and now Twitter have encouraged a transition from constructing paragraphs filling pages to throwing together short messages of acronyms and abbreviations, bullet points and emoticons. In such simplified communications, grammar, punctuation, and spelling are ignored, because they’re not needed.

Many of my students, whose entire schooling has come in the age of texting and Xbox, are no longer familiar with books. Reading one assigned book in a history course, much less half a dozen, is an unfamiliar and possibly painful chore. It can be difficult for them to maintain concentration on any text longer than a couple of pages.

With less reading comes poorer writing. For the first time in a long career of reading student prose, I am given papers by students who can’t distinguish between “where” and “were”. That’s also an error in pronunciation. Many students have difficulty reading complex sentences out loud, with little idea how to sound out unfamiliar words. Basic reading skills can no longer be assumed among college students.

This is not just the lament of a grumpy greybeard longing for the good old days. In one lifetime a cultural revolution has replaced the primacy of reading books with other mental pursuits. Like all previous generations whose time has come and gone, I could, and occasionally do, complain about the end of civilization. But more useful is to wonder how we should adapt to a possible book-free reality. When the most basic means of the transmission of  knowledge suddenly falls out of favor, what should educators do?

Librarians have been trying desperately to preserve the relevance of buildings created to hold and distribute books. Will those wonderful temples to popular reading created across America a century ago by Andrew Carnegie and many others, of which Jacksonville has a fine example, simply turn into computer rooms with unusually high ceilings?

Will e-books on Nooks delay the death of sustained reading? Should authors hire cartoonists to illustrate every page with drawings, because readers are no longer able or willing to translate long strings of words into visual images? How will we communicate complex ideas within a 140-character limit? Or will we all be too busy playing Madden football?

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, December 18, 2012

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Corporations Are Not People

My father created a corporation. He owned a very small business in New York City, helping manufacturers ship cartons of records overseas. Sometimes he had one employee. He started the business the year I was born, and called it Steven Shipping Company. A few years later he incorporated.

That corporation was a person, my father, and nobody else. But many corporations are enormous. Twenty American corporations had annual sales over $100 billion in 2011, and 479 earned revenues over $5 billion. In August 2011, Mitt Romney said, “Corporations are people”. Should these giants be considered to be “people”?

The treatment of corporations as equivalent to persons has a long history. One of the earliest Supreme Court decisions, “Trustees of Dartmouth College v. Woodward” in 1819, affirmed the right of corporations to make contracts, as people did. In 1830, Chief Justice Marshall stated, “The great object of an incorporation is to bestow the character and properties of individuality on a collective and changing body of men.” The equal protection and due process clauses of the 14th Amendment, adopted in 1868, were designed to insure that African Americans enjoyed equal rights. Soon they were applied to corporations.

The 2012 elections were heavily influenced by the 2010 Supreme Court decision in “Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission”, which ruled that corporate political spending is protected, because corporations also have a First Amendment right to free speech. That removal of traditional restrictions on corporate political advertising ensured that spending in 2012 far exceeded all previous elections.

But corporations do not act like people. They are created to make money. Their goal is to increase the bottom line. No human being is so narrowly focused. In exchange for our rights we have responsibilities to our fellow citizens and to our society. People who only care about how many dollars they can collect make poor citizens. Justice John Paul Stevens’ dissent in “Citizens United” argued that because corporations have no purpose outside of profit-making, they, unlike people, have no morality and no loyalty.

The Declaration of Independence assures “certain inalienable rights” to people. The Constitution specifies those rights for American citizens. Corporations are not mentioned. It is more than ironic that the same conservative justices who claim that they make decisions based on the framers’ “original intent” wish to give human rights to corporate entities that the framers could not have imagined. That decision, among many others, demonstrates that “original intent” is a convenient justification, which is applied here and ignored there, in order to reach preconceived decisions.

Corporations are not people, but a small number of people do control huge corporations. The political contributions made by giant corporations do not represent collective decisions of their workers or stockholders. A few top executives use corporate funds, which they control but do not own, to try to influence elections. The problem with treating corporations as people for the purpose of political speech is that it provides another opportunity for rich and powerful corporate executives to magnify their speech with money which belongs to others. Because winning elections depends on getting one’s message out through expensive media, rich people already have outsized influence over politicians of both parties. President Obama, like every recent President, gave plum federal appointments to supporters whose main qualification was their ability to raise money for his campaign.

Reversing the “Citizens United” decision with a law or an amendment to the Constitution may not be an appropriate way to deal with the outsized role of money in American elections. But corporations must be regulated by government. We have learned that lesson over and over again, most recently in the financial collapse caused by a small number of extraordinarily greedy corporate executives with no social conscience or other traits which would qualify them as “people”.

If corporations have the right to political speech, they ought also to have the social responsibilities of people – to look out for our neighbors, to preserve our communities, to pay a fair share of taxes for the services we receive. Those who argue for the rights of corporations as people should also explain how we can ensure that corporations act like good citizens.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, December 11, 2012

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Red State, Blue State

I just spent a weekend in Charleston, South Carolina, giving a talk about my research on Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany who spent the war in Shanghai. I was barely a mile from Fort Sumter, where the Civil War began. South Carolina is one of the reddest states, giving 55% of its votes to Romney. Now I’m back at home in Illinois, one of the bluer states, so safe for Democrats that Obama did not even campaign in his home state. Red state, blue state – what’s the difference?

If you widen your concern past elections, not much. The people I met in Charleston were happy about their unseasonably warm weather, over 60 degrees in early December, with flowers still blooming. On Saturday evening, my hosts took me to two neighborhood parties. Conversation revolved around local gossip, prospects for golf, and professional football at one party, and a more academic set of topics at the other. I met filmmakers and teachers, housewives and retirees, businesspeople and lawyers. People kicked back with mulled wine and chili, apple pie and beer, cheese and crackers. Except for the southern drawl, it would have been hard to tell that I was not home in Jacksonville or anywhere else in these United States.

Lately we have been inundated with political campaigning and reporting. Now that the election is over, stories about the heated negotiations over the “fiscal cliff” and other party political arguments dominate the news. Anyone who tried to understand our nation from the outside through the media might think that the Civil War, portrayed so briefly but gruesomely at the beginning of the fine new film “Lincoln”, was still going on: south against north, both coasts against the middle, cities against countryside, red against blue.

It’s not true. Americans in South Carolina and Illinois are thinking about the same things as Americans across the country. And most of those things have little to do with politics.

Certainly politics plays a role in nearly every area of life. The funding of Medicare will affect my mother’s financial future and my own. Moving the Social Security retirement age up a year or two would force millions of Americans to work a little longer than they planned. Home mortgages, school funding, and tax rates will impact our checkbooks. Infrastructure investment and defense spending, not to mention dealing with the enormous debts of Illinois, and the even more enormous debts of the federal government, will have long-term effects on employment and interest rates. There is much reason to care about which party wins elections.

But the differences between the parties fade into the background when we face the real issues in our daily lives. How are our children doing? Are our parents healthy? Who is going to rake the leaves? Did our team win? What do we have to do at work this week? Have we bought Christmas presents for everyone on our list? What’s for dinner?

On the airplane back to St. Louis, I met an oil and gas man from Oklahoma. I’m pretty sure he voted for Romney, because he said that Obama’s policies were not good for the oil and gas industry. We had plenty to talk about: where we were going and why; the Chicago Bears’ loss in overtime; the drought in the Midwest; chasing tornadoes; fantasy football; our mutual interest in history. I learned quite a bit about the obstacles to the wider production of electricity from wind power. We didn’t exchange names until we landed, but we made a connection that transcended any political differences. When we shook hands, what mattered was that we were interested in hearing each other talk about things we knew, were respectful of the other’s opinions, and realized we liked each other right away.

If you listen too much to political talk, you might come to believe that half of America thinks the other half is stupid, evil, and corrupt. But the few people who are signing petitions to secede from the US are the same ranters who call everyone else traitors, who don’t let facts get in the way of their opinions, and who keep trying to convince some Americans to hate other Americans.

Let them form their own country. Soon they’ll all hate each other. We can then continue to find the good and true things that unite us as Americans.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, December 4, 2012