Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Watch Your Mouth!

 The winner of the Miss America contest in 2003 campaigns for sexual abstinence. She is invited to speak at the 2004 Republican national convention in New York, where George Bush was nominated for a second term. She graduates from University of Illinois Phi Beta Kappa, and distinguishes herself at Harvard Law School.

But for some in downstate Illinois that’s not as important as her mixed racial background. When Erika Harold decided to challenge Rodney Davis for his congressional seat, Jim Allen, the Republican Party chair of Montgomery County, wrote the following: “Rodney Davis will win and the love child of the DNC will be back in Shitcago working for some law firm that needs to meet their quota for minority hires. . . . miss queen is being used like a street walker and her pimps are the DEMOCRAT PARTY and RINO REPUBLICANS.” Mr. Allen assumed this political analysis would be popular among his Republican colleagues, so he sent it to Doug Ibendahl, the editor of the Republican News Watch website, who used to be the lawyer for the Illinois Republican Party.

Politics can be as exciting as mixed martial arts, but many more people will have heard about the troubles that Paula Deen, a celebrity cook with her own TV show, has gotten into with her opinions on race relations. Deen and her brother are being sued by a former employee, who said the environment in their restaurant in Savannah was poisoned by racial slurs and sexual harassment. In court depositions, Deen admitted to using racist language, telling jokes denigrating minorities, and planning a “southern plantation wedding” for her brother in 2007, with black waiters playing the role of slaves.

These incidents would not have been news when I was growing up. Now they cause an uproar. Jim Allen has resigned his Republican Party office and Paula Deen’s show is being cancelled by the Food Network. The difference is that racist talk is no longer tolerated. North or South, liberal or conservative, public racism is unacceptable, and racist words are likely to have bad consequences for the speaker. Although some people complain about “political correctness”, the Jim Allen incident demonstrates that there are still plenty of white people who will publicly slander minorities.

But the effort to eliminate such nasty features of public discourse can go too far. Many institutions struggle with defining what constitutes a level of uncivil discourse that should be punished. The Office of Civil Rights, in the federal Department of Education, recently offered a “blueprint for colleges and universities throughout the country” on what constitutes sexual harassment. The OCR stated that sexual harassment should be defined as “any unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature”. What is “unwelcome”, however, is not to be judged by an “objectively reasonable person”. So who gets to judge whether a lecture about the AIDS epidemic, a discussion of a novel with sexually active characters, a poetry reading, or a film represent sexual harassment? Some commentators believe that speakers will be punished if anyone is offended at anything they say.

There are always complaints from parents of school children that particular books in classrooms or libraries are offensive. Recently a Michigan mother objected to the use of Anne Frank’s “Diary” in her seventh-grade daughter’s classroom, because of Anne’s discussion of her genitalia. In many schools, Mark Twain’s “Huck Finn” was controversial because of the frequent use of the word “nigger”.

Some of these cases are easy to judge. Jim Allen’s email tirade was based in racism and designed to harm both Erika Harold and every other black person. On the other hand, we might label Paula Deen as an unconscious racist, if we assume that she doesn’t realize after 50 years of civil rights discussion that she needs to give up some elements of her Southern upbringing. Is her YouTube apology enough?

Finding acceptable solutions to such conflicts can be difficult. A ban on any use of a particular word doesn’t work. The politics of language is rooted in time and place. George Carlin was arrested in Milwaukee in 1972 for disturbing the peace, when he performed the “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television”. Now those words can be heard everywhere, but the N-word has nearly disappeared.

We will always have arguments about what we should and shouldn’t say. Our language will continue to evolve in tune with our changing political culture. Blanket condemnations of “political correctness” are themselves politically one-sided. Attempts to punish every speech which offends anyone will prevent healthy controversy and leave us stuck in the status quo. We have to understand speech from the points of view of the speaker and the listener, which will help us recognize the difference between Jim Allen’s hate speech, Paula Deen’s ignorant speech, and Mark Twain’s literary speech. As difficult as it is, we must use common sense.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, June 25, 2013

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Fathers are Forever

I’m writing this on Father’s Day. Father’s Day is an afterthought. The second Sunday in May was officially designated Mother’s Day in 1914 by Congress and President Woodrow Wilson. The first presidential proclamation honoring fathers was issued by President Lyndon Johnson in 1966, over 50 years later.

Until recently fatherhood itself was an afterthought. In men’s lives, fathering was not the top priority. Men were breadwinners. Men were considered the heads of the household and people gave lip service to “Father Knows Best”, but women cared for children.

The women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s finally made an issue of fathering. If women were going to get out of the house and into the workplace, men had to change their roles, too. By the 1980s, fathers were allowed into the delivery room, present at that magical and painful moment when fatherhood really begins. A few couples shared jobs and child-rearing, and thought this was the wave of the future.

But changing cultural assumptions and family dynamics was not easy. I still remember being the odd man out when I brought my son to a play group in the 1980s. The mothers didn’t know what to do with me, even though we all knew each other. Did I have any interesting things to say about paper vs. cloth diapers? Did I know how to play with children? Would I act like a man among women, that is, superior and condescending? Fathers know best?

Women today still struggle with workplace discrimination and unequal pay. Paternity leave policies are far from universal. Stay-at-home fathers face social stigmas about their choices. Although fathers spend much more time taking care of their children, they are still far behind mothers. Since the 1960s, fathers have tripled the amount of time with their children, but that amount has risen from 2.5 hours a week (20 minutes a day?) to 7.3 hours per week, barely an hour a day. On average, that’s not really fatherhood.

There is much public concern about inadequate fatherhood. Many commentators on fathers and their absence, such as the National Fatherhood Initiative, claim that “Today, one in three children are growing up without their father.” This is an unfortunate error: one in three children live apart from their biological father, but many live with a step-father or adoptive father. Still, the number of fatherless children is very high, a bit more than one in four. That compares to only one in thirteen who live with no mother.

Furthermore, fathers raising their children without a mother tend to have it easier than mothers alone, according to the Census Bureau. In 2011, fathers alone cared for 5% of 12- to 17-year-old children, but only 2% of those 2 years old or younger. Fathers alone took care of 6% of children with no siblings, but only 2% of children with 3 or more siblings. About 21% of fathers caring for children with no mother lived below the poverty level, but that was true for 44% of mothers alone. The median income for mothers alone was about $25,000, while it was over $40,000 for fathers. On each of these measures, women take the tougher parenting roles.

Some of the blame for men’s insufficient attention to fatherhood can be attributed to our sexist culture. Girls are still given dolls to practice with, while boys play video games where strong men save sexy women. One of today’s Father’s Day TV programs is the Miss USA pageant.

But men themselves have to shoulder most of the responsibility for their lack of responsibility. Too many men help to make children, but then fail to help raise them. Raising children means not doing other things, including participation in the family-unfriendly work culture of corporate and professional life. Men have let women be the advocates for flexible hours, leave for child care, and other reforms which make it easier to combine family and work.

Being a parent is difficult. Fatherhood has been my most demanding, but also most rewarding accomplishment. There were no days off. Sometimes the work was literally shitty, but I liked changing diapers, because it was a moment of tender touching. (I’m a fan of cloth, by the way.) Every decision seemed momentous, with no obvious answers. Should we let our baby cry a bit longer? Is it time to replace the crib with a bed? How late can they stay out?

Fatherhood is about taking responsibility. You only earn a say in big decisions by getting up in the middle of the night, by missing meetings to stay home with a sick child, by replacing a social life with a home life. That investment is worth every second. Long after the rigors of parenting are over, children who are no longer children reflect back the love they have received. On Father’s Day, and every other day, fatherhood is the best thing to which a man can aspire.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, June 18, 2013

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire

I read an article the other day about a famous liar, Jonah Lehrer. Less than a year ago, Lehrer was a writer for the New Yorker, one of the most prestigious jobs in journalism. He was caught fabricating quotations and plagiarizing from other writers, and resigned in disgrace. Then in February, he got $20,000 from the Knight Foundation to give a talk about his lies and how he planned to redeem himself. The Knight Foundation claims it promotes quality journalism under the slogan “informed and engaged communities”. Now he has just scored a deal with Simon and Schuster for a book tentatively titled “A Book About Love”. Looks like lying can be a good career move.

In fact, liars are doing quite well these days. While he was Governor of South Carolina in 2009, Mark Sanford cheated on his wife and lied about it to his constituents. He lied about misusing state travel funds to finance his long distance affair. He admitted that he had “crossed the lines” with other women during his marriage. This May he was elected to Congress, with the endorsements of Speaker John Boehner and other conservative Republicans. His website headlines “Leadership”.

Another big public liar is Democrat Anthony Weiner, a married man who sent sexually explicit messages and photos to many women while he was in Congress, and then fervently denied it. He resigned from Congress just two years ago, but now he’s back in the political limelight. Weiner is running for mayor of New York. His website promotes his “ideas”. If you want to make a contribution to his campaign, you must check a box: “I confirm that the following statements are true and accurate.” Weiner does not have to confirm that his statements are true or accurate. A poll in late May showed Weiner running second in a crowded field, with 19% support.

Maybe it is wrong to put journalistic liars and political liars into the same box. Journalists are supposed to seek the truth, and when they are caught lying, they lose their jobs, at least temporarily. Politicians lie all the time. Michele Bachmann is a good example of how a political career can be created by making stuff up.
She has announced that she won’t run for reelection, but that’s because of a different set of lies: she is being investigated for making illegal payments to an Iowa Republican for his support in her presidential campaign and for money laundering.

Celebrity liars appear to have great difficulty accepting that they might have to suffer some consequences. Lance Armstrong is one of the greatest cheaters in sports history, who forced his teammates to lie and cheat with him for years, but now he wants absolution so he can keep competing. Why does he think he can get away with that?

Maybe because others have already successfully turned celebrity disgrace back into profit. Jim Bakker once ruled an empire of TV evangelism with his wife, Tammy Faye. Then it was discovered that he had been pocketing profits, keeping two sets of books, cheating those who sent him money. And he cheated on Tammy Faye with Jessica Hahn. He was found guilty in federal court on 24 counts of mail fraud, wire fraud, and conspiracy. He admitted that he hadn’t even read the Bible. After 5 years in prison, Bakker is now back preaching on TV.

In all of these cases, the lies are hardly the greatest offense. Abuse of public office, cheating on one’s wife, stealing people’s words and ideas and money are indicative of more serious moral failings. But these big liars have been successful in repackaging their immorality as simple errors. Anthony Weiner said recently about his infidelity, betrayal of public trust, and lying, that “it was a personal mistake that I made.” After he won election last month, Sanford said on TV, “People do make mistakes.” Christian belief in forgiveness appears to have played a big role in his comeback, as both he and his supporters have attributed his victory to the forgiving nature of South Carolina voters.

I doubt those explanations. I don’t think the South Carolina voters are more forgiving than anyone else. Conservatives there who voted for Sanford are not at all forgiving of sins they attribute to President Obama or any liberal. Partisan politics trumps morality every time, even for so-called “values voters” who preach family values and vote for philandering Republicans over Democrats every time.

But why did Sanford win his Republican primary? There is something else at work in the public’s fascination with creeps. Here reality television gives us the clue: many Americans want to see what the people they love to hate will do. Simon and Schuster are betting big bucks that the public will buy Jonah Lehrer’s book, just like Anthony Weiner’s contributors are betting that voters will buy his “ideas”. I think people are seeking sleaze. They don’t believe these men have suddenly become paragons of virtue; they are buying into the next scandal.

Too bad for the rest of us. We’re stuck with recycled liars.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, June 11, 2013

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

America and Israel: A Special Relationship

I just got a fund-raising letter for Bar-Ilan University in Israel. It was sent by the American Friends of Bar-Ilan University in New York, and exemplifies much about the relationship of the United States and Israel. Non-profit organizations of all kinds in Israel are significantly supported by Americans, just as the government of Israel is significantly supported by our government. Privately and publically, Americans, not only Jewish Americans, keep Israel going.

There are few similar relationships between independent nations. Our so-called special relationship with Great Britain, which developed over the entire 20th century, is not nearly as special as our relationship with Israel, which just celebrated its 65th birthday. The report “U.S. Foreign Aid to Israel” of the Congressional Research Service begins by saying, “Israel is the largest cumulative recipient of U.S. foreign assistance since World War II.”

About one-third of the American foreign-aid budget goes to Israel. Over the years 1949-1966, US government aid to Israel was the same as the total of US aid to all the countries of Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and the Caribbean. The $3 billion annually that the government gives to Israel accounts for about 20% of the Israeli defense budget. In addition, Americans give about $1.5 billion annually in private contributions.

Israel is not a poor nation. Its gross domestic product per capita places it among the richest nations in the world, similar to France and Japan. It ranks tenth in the world in percentage of its population who are millionaires. But philanthropy is not as highly developed in Israel as it is in the US. Hebrew University professor Hillel Schmid found that in 2009 Israeli philanthropy constituted 0.74 percent of Israel’s GDP, compared to 2.1 percent in the United States. In that year, Israelis donated $3 billion, only two times what Americans donated to Israel.
Until 2009, Israeli non-profits received more money from abroad than they did from their own citizens.

Some of the funds that Americans send to Israel effectively oppose American foreign policy. The NY Times estimated that Americans donated about $200 million between 2000 and 2010 to Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. American contributions to settlement outposts which are illegal under Israeli law are eligible for tax deductions under IRS rules.

The fund-raising letter notes Bar-Ilan’s unique character: “It is the only seat of higher learning in all of Israel that requires its students to complete a Judaic Studies curriculum.” Since Israel was founded as a state for Jews, lies right in the middle of a region where religion dominates public life, and is under permanent siege because of religious conflicts with Muslims, it might be surprising that its universities generally do not require religious instruction. Although religious conservatives exert disproportionate influence on Israeli politics, Israel is an outpost of secular Western values, such as the separation of temple and state, in the Middle East. This may be a good argument for supporting Israel, but does it mean that we should support Israel more than any other nation on earth?

I raise the question, does Israel need so much American aid? Does the economic development of Israel into one of the world’s richest nations suggest a shift in the nature of the special financial relationship between the US and Israel? Should wealthy Israelis shoulder more of the burden of supporting their own nation?

These legitimate questions are very difficult to discuss in our current political climate. Anyone advocating a change in the American relationship to Israel is accused of abandoning Jews to destruction by Hezbollah and other militant Muslim forces. Pointing out the facts about this relationship can bring accusations of antisemitism.

I am not arguing that we should reduce public or private aid to Israel, just providing some numbers. But these numbers should make us think about how we distribute American taxpayers’ money around the world, especially when we have enormous budget deficits. Does it make sense for us to cut domestic programs which help the poor, while we give so generously to a wealthy nation?

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, June 4, 2013