Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Terrorizing an American City

My two children live in Boston. On the weekend that the city was shut down in the hunt for Dzhokhar Tsernaev, I was visiting them. Now that he has been caught, we can think about the national implications of the Boston Marathon bombing and its aftermath.

The Tsernaev brothers planned to do a lot of damage to American people and structures. Remarkable work by the people of our public services limited that damage. The first responders to the bombing and the hospital staffs across Boston saved every wounded person who came to them, limiting the death toll to three. Intensive police and FBI investigative work identified the bombers within a few days. Then an extraordinary manhunt prevented them from leaving the Boston area, despite their plans to explode bombs in New York City. After the brothers killed an MIT policeman, one was killed and the other captured without any other deaths of civilians or police.

Technology played a significant role in those successes. Surveillance videos and infrared cameras on helicopters made the identification and location of the bombers possible. The police were able to track the car they hijacked because its owner had left his cellphone inside when he escaped.

On the other hand, some of the TV reporting during the manhunt was comically incompetent. When it was discovered that Dzhokhar Tsernaev was a student at a University of Massachusetts branch campus in Dartmouth, MA, the reporter on the station I was watching first said that the campus of Dartmouth University in New Hampshire was being evacuated, then changed that to the main UMass campus in Amherst. Later I heard an NPR “timeline” of what had happened that was riddled with errors.

But the lockdown worked well. Hundreds of police were able to isolate Tsernaev in one part of Boston and hunt him down. Bostonians cooperated completely. Still it is worth asking, was this an overreaction? Should a large metropolitan area of nearly a million people be shut down in order to search for a single criminal?

If he had killed a family of 5, as did a man in Manchester, IL, just a few miles from where I live, there would have been no lockdown. If Adam Lanza had managed to leave Sandy Hook Elementary School and drive towards New York, an hour away, would that city have been shut down? Under what circumstances should our government close down a city? If the perpetrators were not born in the US? If they hate America, not just their neighbors? If they have bombs?

Business Week estimated that a lost day might cost Boston over $300 million. Will the lockdown precedent encourage perpetrators to copy the Boston bombers?

The bombers appear to have been motivated by a crazy version of Islam which encouraged them to kill Americans. One response has been the proliferation of equally crazy ideas about the American government attacking its own citizens.
A brief journey (I couldn’t stand any more) through the thousands of blog entries about the Boston bombing reveals a wide variety of people who have leaped to the conclusion that the bombing was done by our own government. It is not surprising that the brothers’ parents, now in Dagestan in Russia, claim their boys are the innocent victims of a “false flag” “black ops” American conspiracy. But what about all the media talkers, like Alex Jones and Glenn Beck, and nutty politicians, like Republican New Hampshire state Rep. Stella Tremblay, who fuel these fantasies?

Last Friday Texas Congressman Louie Gohmert said on the radio that the Obama administration “has so many Muslim brotherhood members that have influence that they just are making wrong decisions for America.” The day before, Republicans Jim Jordan of Ohio and Jason Chaffetz of Utah held a hearing “to examine the procurement of ammunition by the Department of Homeland Security and Social Security Administration Office of Inspector General.” Benjamin Radford, in his Bad Science column, explains, “Conspiracy theorists prefer complex mysteries over simple truths, and so they find mystery where none exists.”

It’s no wonder that some people come to amazing conclusions, like the anonymous commenter on Alex Jones’ site, who is sure there is “a conspiracy of aliens and humans that has been conducting secret mind altering experiments on citizens. They have planted the images of a ‘bombing’ in our heads when in fact, no bombing actually occurred.” No moon landing occurred either, and no plane crashed into the Pentagon on 9/11.
The Boston Marathon bombing demonstrates that it is very difficult to get away with such a terrorist attack. But it may also show that it is not difficult to perpetrate such a murderous act in a crowded urban place, and thus to create enormous havoc. Some of that havoc is amplified by ambitious people with selfish motives.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, April 30, 2013

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Voting in Jacksonville

Last Tuesday my side lost. The effort to change the at-large voting system for our School Board to a set of districts, or wards, only won 44% of the votes. The at-large system remains. So does the stark division of our city by wealth and power.

The voting results provide a clear picture of a divided city. East of Main Street lie Wards 1 and 2, the poorest sections of Jacksonville, several of whose neighborhood elementary schools have been closed. There the ward-based idea won by a 2 to 1 margin. In Ward 3 in the center of town, ward-based won more narrowly, with 54% of the votes. In Wards 4 and 5 on the west side, at-large won by a significant margin, 64% to 36%.

Turnout tipped the scales in Jacksonville. On the west side, turnout was 29%, while on the east side only 12%.

Jacksonville provided slightly more than half of the votes from District 117. In South Jacksonville, the ward-based system won a very narrow victory, 419 to 405. But in the rural villages which surround Jacksonville and are part of this very large district, at-large won 601 to 338. The suburbs, with only 23% of the total votes, provided more than half of the winning difference.

Another way to look at the voting is that the western area of Jacksonville, bounded on the east by Park and Caldwell Streets, on the north by West Walnut, and on the south by West Morton (precincts 11-16), was so strongly opposed to the ward-based idea that it provided nearly enough votes for the winning margin.

Rather than an evenly distributed vote across District 117, the question of how to elect our School Board divided the District into two opposing pieces. Wards 4 and 5 in Jacksonville plus the suburbs voted 64% to 36% in favor of at-large. The rest of Jacksonville plus South Jacksonville voted 56% to 44% for ward-based.

The voting for individual Board members was not so different across the District. Noel Beard, Debra Maul, and Cheryl Ballard took the top three spots in both west and east Jacksonville, South Jacksonville, and the suburbs. The unhappiness with the current School Board was strongest in eastern Jacksonville, where the two defeated incumbents came in behind everyone else in 7th and 8th place.

The presence of 8 candidates for 3 spots, plus the ballot question about voting systems, nearly doubled the turnout of 2011, but even so less than a quarter of registered voters showed up. The eastern half of Jacksonville, which has been virtually unrepresented on the School Board for the past 20 years, voted for a ward-based system to insure their representation. The western areas of Jacksonville and the suburbs, which have been greatly overrepresented, voted to maintain the present system. The School Board, now with 3 new members, continues this geographically unbalanced pattern.

The lack of representation of the poorer sections of Jacksonville on the School Board prompted the drive for a ward-based system. That was defeated, but the problem remains. David Richards, in a letter to the Journal-Courier on April 4, noted that the candidates for School Board decided to ignore Jacksonville’s northeastern precincts when they put up their campaign signs.

The larger issue at stake in School Board elections is the health of all of Jacksonville. Spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to spruce up the downtown will not succeed if a few blocks away school buildings lie vacant and neighborhoods deteriorate. We won’t be able to replace all the jobs that have been lost in recent years if our schools are failing.

The task facing the new School Board and the new superintendent is to integrate all of Jacksonville’s neighborhoods into the remaining schools. If a new school is built, people in the currently unrepresented neighborhoods must be engaged in the process. Whether we consider the business climate or housing prices, Jacksonville’s schools must be improved if our city is to prosper.

Jacksonville was once an educational leader, the Athens of the West. That reputation came from a willingness to create innovative institutions, like the Jacksonville Female Academy and the Medical School at Illinois College. Educational leaders, like Jonathan Turner and Newton Bateman, made education in Jacksonville nationally prominent.

The raw materials for a first-class educational system in Jacksonville are still here. A School Board which ignores half the city won’t be able to take advantage of them.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, April 16, 2013

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Creating Community, One Vote at a Time

I’ve been thinking a lot about community lately. My involvement in the elections today in Jacksonville has led to hundreds of conversations with people about our community – what the problems are, how to improve them, how the city should be run. But more important than the way we vote or even whom we vote for is the role the whole community plays in our local affairs.

Every once in a while, we all get to vote. Voting is one of the most important foundations of our democracy. Our ability to select our political managers, at the local, state, and national levels, and to vote them out of office the next time, puts ultimate power in the hands of the people.

Just having a vote, though, does not ensure democracy. The Soviet constitution of 1936 guaranteed its citizens the right to vote, but those votes were meaningless. Candidates were chosen by the Communist Party, one per district. Democracy only happens when the voting system is open and free, when everybody has an equal vote, when the balloting is secret, when the counting of votes is honest.

Voting is indispensable to real democratic control of our communities, but it is not enough. For whom should we cast our ballot? We also need unbiased information about the candidates. Providing that information is one of the roles of our media. Candidates can produce media advertisements for themselves, which can communicate useful information, but which are inherently biased and often misleading. The more money a candidate has, the more ads can be purchased, but that has no relation to the qualities of the candidate except their own wealth and their connections to wealth.

Better information can be generated by the media, by investigative reporters digging into candidates’ claims and past behavior. National elections are usually much better covered than local elections, and that is true here in Jacksonville. Our local media do very little independent reporting about candidates, beyond asking a few questions and reporting what the candidates say in response.

Even better information comes from directly interacting with candidates. At every election the League of Women Voters hosts a forum at which local candidates present themselves, and voters can listen and question. Only a tiny minority of voters attend these events. In my opinion, the best way to judge candidates is to meet them in person, one-on-one. When a candidate comes to my door and is ready to answer my questions, to tell me face-to-face who they are and what they stand for, I am impressed.

That’s still not enough. We voters and community members must do more than listen and occasionally vote. If we want to use our democratic system to actually exercise popular control of our communities, we must get more involved.

That involvement could be as simple as reading to elementary school students or cleaning up trash along the roadside. It could include going to public meetings and speaking up about what we think is important. We can write letters to the newspaper or call elected officials on the phone to voice our concerns. We can get involved in political campaigns for causes or people we support. We can run for office.

Voluntary work in and for our towns and cities, beyond voting, beyond making monetary donations, is what creates community. There are lots of reasons not to do it. Such work takes time and is most often unpaid. It is often thankless. It involves us in conflicts and controversies, which means that people will get annoyed at what you do, occasionally yell at you, perhaps even threaten to make your life in a small town more difficult. Many times your candidate or cause comes up short at the ballot box, and all your effort seems wasted.

But it wasn’t wasted. Every time community members speak with each other about local issues, connections are forged, ideas are discussed, opinions are shifted. Public officials take note when we get involved: they are reminded that they represent all of us, not just their like-minded friends. Difficult issues are not solved in a day or at one election.

As I have knocked on unfamiliar doors these past few weeks, some people have told me that they agree with my position. Others have said they are not interested in the issue, or they take the opposite side. What has surprised me the most, though, is the number of people who have thanked me for taking the time to try to inform and persuade them.

I don’t know how they will vote, or whether they’ll vote. But their thanks have made these efforts worthwhile. I’ve done my best to become informed and think the issues through, but I’m not absolutely certain that my proposals will make Jacksonville a better place. I am sure that talking with my neighbors about our common concerns is good for me and for us.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, April 9, 2013

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Political Tipping Points

            This is an extraordinary moment in American politics. The possibility that the Supreme Court will declare some or all of the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional is already sufficient reason for that label. But that is just one piece of a larger shift, a movement in the tectonic plates of national politics.

            In 1996, 27% of Americans said they favored gay marriage. By 2006, that proportion had risen to 35%. In 2010 it was 41%. The latest poll last month showed 49%. This shift applies to every possible grouping, from the most opposed (white conservative evangelical Protestants over 65) to the most in favor (liberals under 30).

            Malcolm Gladwell might call this a tipping point. Yet the idea of a “tipping point” focuses our attention on one moment, and obscures the long history of any significant change. The issue of gay rights and discrimination against gays came into public attention in 1969 in New York City. Now, 44 years later, the gradual shift in the American public’s understanding of who is gay and what it means to be gay could be reflected in a momentous reform of American law.

            Such a repositioning of voter attitudes is not always reflected in the views of elected politicians. When Pat Brady, the chair of the Illinois Republican Party, urged Republican legislators in the state house in January to support gay marriage, he faced calls for his resignation. Although 100 prominent Republicans have recently signed a friend-of-the-court brief directed at the Supreme Court in favor of gay marriage, Republicans currently holding office remain nearly universally opposed.

            Another issue which might have reached a different kind of tipping point is interracial marriage. In 1987, only 48% of Americans believed that it was acceptable for blacks and whites to date. That proportion has steadily risen to 83% in 2009. Increasing approval goes hand-in-hand with increasing practice. The proportion of interracial marriages among newlyweds in the U.S. more than doubled between 1980 (6.7%) and 2010 (15%). As in other shifts in social attitudes, younger Americans lead the way: 61% between 18 and 29 said that more people of different races marrying each other was a change for the better; only 28% over 65 agreed with that.

            Here the tipping point is not about legality, but about acceptance. I see interracial couples much more often on television, both in regular programming and in advertisements. I am reminded of the belated appearance of African Americans in leading roles on TV in the late 1960s. The cautious, and thus conservative, people who decide what issues might negatively affect viewers have finally decided that interracial couples are part of the new normal.

            News from Washington indicates that another tipping point may have been reached about immigration, after decades of acrimonious debate. Republican and Democratic politicians negotiating about how to deal with more than 10 million undocumented immigrants in America appear to be nearing a compromise, which might offer a path to citizenship. Here the political shift closely follows the public shift in attitudes. In 1994, 63% said that immigrants were a burden because they take jobs and health care, while only 31% said they strengthened the US. A survey last month showed the reverse: 49% said immigrants strengthen us, while only 41% said they were a burden.

            Unlike their stance on gay marriage, Republicans in Congress perceive clear electoral liabilities in their anti-immigrant rhetoric. President Obama won 71% of the Hispanic vote, which is 10% of the electorate and growing.

            I did not pick these three issues randomly: I was looking for places where American attitudes had been moving toward a new consensus. On other politically important issues, Americans have not changed their minds. The proportions who say abortion should be legal under any circumstances (about 25-30%), legal under some circumstances (about 50%), and illegal in all circumstances (15-20%) have not changed since the 1970s.

            The shifts away from conservative positions on gay and interracial marriage and immigration signal the decline in the attractiveness of major elements in traditional Republican ideology. In all three cases, young voters lead the way in opposing positions taken by Republican politicians. Barring some unlikely reversal of attitudes, such a conservative platform will turn away more and more voters in the future.

            The key to this moment is the increasing disconnect between the official line of the Republican Party and the center of American politics. That divergence has been developing for decades, too. On key issues, the American public has become more liberal, while Republicans at the national level have become more conservative. The polls I cited above also measure party affiliation. Over the past two decades, respondents who identified as Republicans fell from nearly 30% to under 25% in 2012, with corresponding gains among Independents. That small displacement is enough to lose elections.

            Since they lost in November, Republican politicians have begun to discuss the possibility that their platform is a losing proposition. That’s the bigger tipping point. The Republican Party is threatened with irrelevancy, because its ideology is shared by fewer and fewer Americans. Between now and the next election, we may see a historic shift in the Republican platform.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, April 2, 2013