Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Right to Privacy

I am a very private person. I won’t tell the cashier at the sports equipment store my phone number. I am not interested in reading the details of people’s daily routines that make up so many blogs. I don’t understand the need to put revealing photographs on public websites. I don’t like to talk about myself, even to friends. So I am completely out of touch with the contemporary Facebook ethos.

Headlines have been made recently by young people who have put obviously incriminating information online for anyone to see. Using Facebook, an Oklahoma mother tried to sell her two babies, so she could bail out her boyfriend, and a Tennessee teacher demanded sex from a student. When a group of teenagers attacked another teen in Chicago last year, punching, kicking and then robbing him, they filmed themselves and posted the video on YouTube. Soon they were arrested.

But these stories of inept criminals are not typical usages of social media. Despite the worries of parents, most teens are careful about what they post on Facebook, and use privacy settings and other means to manage their online reputations. What has changed, to the discomfort of many adults, is the definition of the community in which modern teens, and others, live and share.

Privacy and community are intertwined. We are not disturbed by people within a certain community keeping in contact, knowing about our lives and telling us about themselves. Modern technological culture has already greatly expanded traditional definitions of our communities of privacy. What used to be kept within the family is now known more widely, as we interact with more people over greater distances. The telephone and the automobile have expanded community over the past century. Now the internet has once again burst the accepted bounds of community by allowing and encouraging interactions between people who have never met. Many adults are willing to reveal quite personal information about themselves and their ideal partners on dating sites, and then to meet total strangers in hopes of romance.

Teens may also include strangers in their private communities: about one-third of teens are Facebook friends with people they have never met. Before the internet, this was virtually impossible, except for long-distance pen pals who exchanged letters.

A right to privacy is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN in 1948: “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honor and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.” The Supreme Court has assumed a right to privacy in some of its most significant decisions. But the intrusions on our privacy are subtle. Laws require companies to tell us about how they treat our private information, but are not useful in preventing them from ignoring our privacy unless we take definitive action.

For example, Amazon.com tracks which books we look at on their site, and then reminds us the next time we get on what we looked at. Like many of these systems which record what you do on the internet, Amazon’s collection of data about the books you look at, your browsing history, can be turned off by going into your account and following this path: Your Amazon.com › Your Browsing History › Manage Your Browsing History. Such systems are usually not easy to figure out and rarely used.

Amazon’s surveillance of our reading preferences and collection of very personal data might prove useful to us, too. The ability to compile vast data banks offers us unprecedented opportunities to connect or re-connect with people across the planet who would otherwise be impossible to find. Facebook and similar sites link the living, allowing us to find high school friends or long-lost relatives. Ancestry.com links past and present: I have found census returns listing my great-grandparents and my mother’s teenage occupation. We may be willing to give up privacy to gain convenience. Traditional ideas about privacy may no longer be relevant.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, May 28, 2013

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Pray Like I Do

 A few days ago, a group of Jewish women gathered to pray at the most sacred place in Jerusalem. The Wailing Wall surrounds the ancient Temple Mount, where Jewish tradition says God gathered the dust to make Adam, where Abraham bound his son Isaac, where two Jewish temples stood for hundreds of years, where the Divine Presence rests. The women were surrounded by other Jews, who tried to prevent them from reaching the Wall, who cursed them, and threw water and chairs and stones at them. Three of these ultra-Orthodox Jewish protesters were arrested.

Last month the praying women themselves had been arrested. Their offense? They had not been praying the right way. The Women of the Wall are non-Orthodox Jews who wear prayer shawls that Orthodox Jews believe should only be worn by men. Until last month, Israeli police prevented women in these garments from praying at the Wailing Wall, because Israel enshrines Orthodox religious practices into state laws. Over the past few years, Jewish women have been arrested and put in jail for wearing a tallit, the prayer shawl, under their clothes, for holding a Torah scroll, and for praying out loud, all activities which the Orthodox believe should be reserved for men.

On April 11, the Jerusalem District Court ruled that the violent Orthodox protesters, not the praying women, were the ones causing a disturbance, and that the women should be allowed to pray as they wish.

The discrimination against women in Israel goes much deeper than disputes at the Wailing Wall. On bus lines serving areas where Orthodox live, women are forced to sit at the back. Recently some women have protested this discrimination, bringing references to the actions of Rosa Parks over 50 years ago. Israeli authorities have reacted in ways reminiscent of the reluctance of American leaders to challenge segregation: in 2011, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that segregated buses were illegal, but allowed them to continue to operate.

These arguments among Jews about how to be Jewish are common to other religions. Sunni and Shia Muslims have disagreed about the nature of Islam since the prophet Muhammed died in 632 and a dispute developed over his successor. Sunni and Shia continue today to kill each other in the Middle East. The split among Christians during the Reformation in 1500s led to a century of violent conflict across central Europe, during which Christians killed other Christians over religious differences. When the leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church instituted reforms in ritual practices in the 17th century, many Russians refused to allow any changes. The so-called Old Believers were then persecuted by the dominant Orthodox clergy and by the Russian state. Old Believers use two fingers to make the sign of the cross, while the official Russian Orthodox Church uses three fingers.

Violence and persecution within religious faiths occurs when state power takes one side. The French Catholic monarchy organized the massacre of French Protestants, called Huguenots, in 1572, killing at least 10,000, and probably many more. Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq was Sunni, and although a minority among the population, persecuted and murdered members of the Shia majority.

The religious disagreements in Israel are not violent. The Israeli government has allowed the Orthodox minority, estimated to be only about 10% of the population, to control significant elements of national life, notably marriage and divorce. There is considerable controversy in Israel about the outsized power of this fundamentalist religious minority, who avoid military service and receive state support for men to study religion all their lives.

Americans typically know little about the nature of the Israeli state that we support so generously. Would Americans so willingly support a state that discriminates against women? Or that makes rules about how one must pray?

In fact, American support for Israel is most powerful among the most fundamentalist Christians. A 2004 poll asked Americans “Should the U.S. support Israel over the Palestinians?” Although more Americans disagreed with that question than agreed, among evangelical Protestants the split in favor of supporting Israel was over 2 to 1.

All too frequently, religious fundamentalists of various faiths demand that everyone must follow their rules. The controversy across our states about marriage equality is a home-grown example. Citing their interpretation of the Bible, American fundamentalists want our government to enshrine their views of homosexuality into secular law.

Everyone should have the right to determine their own religious preference and beliefs. Nobody should have the right to demand, “Pray like I do.”

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, May 14, 2013

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Play Ball, Jackie

I grew up in a Brooklyn Dodgers family. I loved Duke Snider, Carl Furillo, and Pee Wee Reese. I rooted for the Dodgers when they were “Da Bums”, when they lost three World Series before I was five years old, all to the Yankees. So of course I loved Jackie Robinson.

Robinson’s historic first season in major league baseball was 1947. By the time I was born the next summer, Roy Campanella was catching for the Dodgers, and Larry Doby and Satchel Paige were playing for the Cleveland Indians. When I was old enough for my father to take me to Ebbets Field, when the Dodgers at last won their first World Series in 1955, the best black man on the Dodgers was the pitcher Don Newcombe, with a 20-5 record. The best black man in baseball was Willie Mays of the hated New York Giants, who won both National League MVP and the Hickok Belt as best professional athlete in 1954, and who led the league in homers in 1955.

They were great players, but Jackie Robinson was an icon in my New York Jewish home. I don’t know for sure why my parents revered him. They rarely made political pronouncements. They didn’t belong to any organizations. There were no black people in our all-white suburb to be friends with. It’s too late to ask them why they hated racism.

Maybe it was my father’s experience with Nazis in Vienna. Many Jews identified with African Americans as victims of brutal prejudice. Like Ben Chapman, the foul-mouthed Philadelphia manager, racists were usually also antisemites. “There are hundreds of stories that Jews have written about how important Jackie Robinson was to Jews in Brooklyn,” said Rebecca Alpert, professor of religion and women's studies at Temple University, who wrote “Out of Left Field: Jews and Black Baseball,” and who grew up, like I did, near Ebbets Field. Robinson returned the favor and later condemned the antisemitism of some black nationalists in the 1960s.

The new film “42” shows us many hard truths about how Robinson broke through baseball’s color line. Both he and Dodgers’ general manager Branch Rickey, who was 66 in 1947, had spent years preparing for the April day when Robinson took the field for the Dodgers. Robinson was a mature married man of 28, who had already experienced and fought against discrimination in college sports and in the Army. Rickey was one of the remarkable white men who risked their careers, and were threatened with death, because they believed in equality for blacks. He had played professional baseball and football, coached at two small colleges, and become the most innovative baseball executive by creating the farm system and the first real spring training facility. Rickey had been talking with the Dodgers organization about drafting a black player since 1943.

But “42” leaves a lot out. Other African Americans helped Jackie get through that first year. He had met Joe Louis, the boxing champion, in the Army, and Louis’ protests helped him gain entrance to Officer Candidate School. Robinson and Doby often spoke on the phone during their first year in baseball. Robinson fought for the rights of African Americans on the field and off. He stole home 19 times and criticized segregated hotels and restaurants.

The film leaves out Bill Mardo, a white sportswriter for “The Daily Worker”, a Communist newspaper in New York, who had waged a public campaign to integrate baseball since 1942, asking New York fans to urge their teams to sign Negro League players. Mardo was also there in Florida as Robinson tried out for the Montreal Royals in 1946.

Watching “42”, it’s easy to hate racism and racists. The director of “42” made the unusual choice to include the entire national anthem: Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey become the real Americans, who are “decent-minded”, while Ben Chapman and the white fans who screamed at Jackie are the un-American villains. Like black people, Jews and other minorities in the 1940s, racists are now the despised “other”. Even racists deny being racists before spewing some stupid, hateful remark about Michelle Obama’s clothes or her husband’s birthplace.

Hollywood makes everything simple, but racism is never easy to deal with. American racism wasn’t defeated in 1947, or in the 1960s, or with Obama’s reelection. Many racists are obviously jerks, like Ben Chapman, but some of our neighbors, and some of our political leaders, have never been cured of the racist disease.

I don’t know how my parents’ political views, our family’s history during the Holocaust, rooting for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and Jackie’s own nobility and fearless civil rights activism mixed together to make me hate racism. We all have our own trajectories of fate and chance and education, bringing us to important decisions that define our character. Jackie Robinson, like Rosa Parks and many others, endured terrible injustice to make our nation more just. They challenge us to find the better angels of our nature.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, May 7, 2013