Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa

At the family dinner table a couple of days before Christmas, my nephew, who is about to become a father, expressed reluctance to lie to his child about Santa Claus. That led to many stories around the table about belief in Santa.

My son Sam remembered that he was getting skeptical about Santa one Christmas when his great wish was for a Lego Monorail kit. He didn’t have much hope, however, because in his 6-year-old judgment that toy was much too expensive for his frugal parents. Then the Monorail appeared under the tree on Christmas morning in his grandparents’ house, after a long night of secret construction in the company of my similarly busy brothers-in-law. Sam’s skepticism vanished for another season.

One year my daughter Mae told her slightly younger cousins Helen and Ann that she knew “the truth about Santa” and she would be happy to pass on this knowledge. They were not ready for “the truth”, but the next year Helen went looking for clues before Christmas. She found some hidden gifts that then showed up in her stocking on Christmas.

Most Christmas movies, especially the older ones I love, like “Miracle on 34th Street”, not only assume that Santa is real, but that all good people will eventually come to believe that. In the modern remake of “Miracle on 34th Street”, when some military man testifies in court that it would be impossible to make billions of toys at the North Pole, Kris Kringle scoffs. Of course you can’t see the factory – it’s magic.

Dear Prudence” on Slate recently argued that children don’t get hurt by eventually discovering “the truth about Santa”. She wrote that “one of the delights of being a parent is to spread a little fairy dust occasionally.” But not everyone agrees. Philosophy professor David Kyle Johnson at King’s College, a Catholic college in Pennsylvania, denounces the “Santa lie”. His argument appears to be about the immorality of lying, while most psychologists say that parental tales of Santa do no harm.

The wonderful story “The Polar Express” directly addresses how belief in Santa gradually disappears as children get older. University of Texas psychologist Jacqueline Woolley interviewed children and found that belief in Santa peaked about age 5, when nearly all children believed, and then dropped off quickly, so that by age 9, only one in three thought Santa was real. Research by Occidental College psychologists Andrew Shtulman and Rachel InKyung Yoo showed that children gradually lose their belief in Santa’s purely magical qualities as their understanding of the physical world grows. But to preserve something of Santa, they develop explanations for his impossible activities which are more plausible to them, such as that he has millions of elves as helpers to make all those toys.

My children are too old to have had experienced the Elf on the Shelf craze, and I’m happy for that. Scaring children into proper behavior with stories about magic spies for Santa is, in my opinion, a perversion of Santa’s magic into something that parents, not children, want. I might not go as far as Professor Laura Pinto, who argues that the all-seeing Elf prepares kids to accept the controversial activities of the NSA and the surveillance state, but I find the whole idea creepy.

In a New York Times opinion column, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz writes that Google searches for “depression” and similar words are less frequent around Christmas. Gallup surveys show Americans’ mood improves around Christmas, while the number of suicides drops. Maybe that’s part of Santa’smagic.

Can Santa really deliver toys across the world in one night? Can he squeeze down all those chimneys? Those are the wrong questions. Even in some Jewish families, Christmas is a magical time, when we all can dream of giving the perfect gift, of seeing our loved ones smile with delight as they discover what’s inside those carefully wrapped packages. For me, as long as belief in Santa might fascinate another generation of children with images of magical generosity, I’ll grin when Kris Kringle wins his case one more time.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville, IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, December 30, 2014

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Are We a Great Nation?

Now we know a lot more about the role of torture in America. A summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee report on the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program is now available for all to read. The full Committee study is more than 6700 pages long and is still classified. It is the result of 5 years of study by the Committee. Even the summary is not easy reading. It covers hundreds of pages. The full report is actually two reports: the majority Democrats wrote and passed the report, while the minority Republicans objected to parts or all of it, and some voted against releasing even the summary.

In fact, many Republicans on the Committee chose not to participate in the investigation at all. When the final report came up for a vote, the 7 Democrats, one independent, and one Republican voted for it, and 6 Republicans against.

The report details the following treatment of prisoners in American custody: prisoners were force fed; one prisoner showed medical signs of a violent anal rape; one prisoner froze to death after being chained naked to the floor of his unheated cell overnight; waterboarding was frequently used, and several prisoners nearly died from this treatment; threats were made to rape or kill family members, including children, of the prisoners; one prisoner was put in ice-water baths and forced to stand for 66 hours (he was arrested because of mistaken identity); one prisoner was placed in a coffin-sized box for 11 days, and also in a box 2' by 2.5' by 2.5' for more than a day.

Of a total of 119 prisoners, 39 were tortured, 6 of them before any attempt was made to see if they would cooperate without torture. At least 26 innocent prisoners were improperly detained, but some of them were tortured, too.

The CIA provided misleading testimony to Congress and the President about a variety of issues, including the total number of prisoners and the methods of interrogation. Private contractors developed the torture techniques, employed them on prisoners, and evaluated their effectiveness. They earned millions of dollars for their work.

The major objection of the Republican Senators to the Committee report is over the issue of effectiveness. While the official report written by Democrats says that “enhanced interrogation techniques” were “not an effective means of acquiring intelligence”, the minority Republicans disagree, and have written dozens of pages of detailed objections. But the most significant assessment of the effectiveness of CIA torture was provided by CIA chief John Brennan, who said after the report was released that, “the cause-and-effect relationship between the application of those EITs and the ultimate provision of information is unknown and unknowable.”

The question of effectiveness cannot be answered. I think it’s more important for our national self-respect to ask whether torture ought to be used by the American government whether or not it is effective. The minority Republican report does not address the morality of torture. One Republican on the Committee, Susan Collins of Maine, stated at the beginning of her own minority report that “the use of torture is deplorable and is completely contrary to our values as Americans.” She notes that the US ratified the international Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment in 1994, and thereby promised that “no exceptional circumstances whatsoever”, including war, could be used as a justification of torture. Another Republican with personal knowledge of torture, Senator John McCain, praised the report on the floor of the Senate, and said “the use of torture compromises that which most distinguishes us from our enemies, our belief that all people, even captured enemies, possess basic human rights”.

The partisan division in the Senate Committee is mirrored in the general public. A poll by the Pew Research Center found that 76% of Republicans thought the torture methods were justified, and 64% thought the release of the report was wrong. Only 37% of Democrats justified torture, but 56% said the report’s release was correct. More liberal Democrats were less likely to justify torture, but more likely to approve the release. Republicans say that torture helped prevent terrorist attacks, while Democrats are split on that issue.

The founders of the United States were Enlightenment thinkers who eagerly put into practice the ideas of their philosophical peers. One of the foundations of Enlightenment thought was the rejection of torture. That belief was written into our Constitution’s Eighth Amendment, which bans “cruel and unusual punishment”.

It is noteworthy that those conservative Americans who insist most loudly that we should follow the founding documents literally, and who also insist that the US is an exceptional nation because of its moral virtue, defend torture because they believe it is effective. The rejection of torture as immoral has now become a “liberal” idea, just as it was in the 18th century, when the most liberal political leaders in the world founded our nation.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, December 23, 2014

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Who Cares About Corruption?

Governor Pat Quinn of Illinois has only a few weeks left in office after his defeat by Bruce Rauner. That left him enough time to get Lou Bertuca appointed as executive director of the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority, which was “created by the Illinois General Assembly in 1987 for the purpose of constructing and renovating sports stadiums for professional sports teams.” The ISFA owns US Cellular Field, home of the Chicago White Sox, and has a $40 million annual budget. The position pays $160,000 per year, not bad for a 30-year-old with no relevant experience, except that he was Quinn’s campaign manager.

That is corruption, the misuse of government for the benefit of private interests. Corruption exists at the nexus of money and power: money buys governmental power, and power enables people to make money. Quinn promoted himself as a crusader against corruption when he sought office, but he no longer has any reason, except perhaps conscience, to refrain from rewarding friends at the expense of the public good.

Quinn’s appointment of Bertuca is called patronage, the doling out of government jobs to friends and supporters rather than to qualified candidates. The Civil Service Commission was established in 1883 to end decades of patronage scandals. Applicants for federal jobs would have pass an examination to demonstrate their qualifications. Despite countless efforts to get rid of patronage in the US, the use of power to reward unqualified people continues, even at the highest levels.

Illinois has the reputation of having one of the most corrupt state governments in the country. Beyond the tendency of our governors to commit crimes and go to prison, it involves the systematic abuse of the public trust for personal enrichment. That reputation has been confirmed by some political scientists at the University of Illinois at Chicago. They wrote that “the Chicago metropolitan region has been the most corrupt area in the country since 1976,” and that Illinois is the third most corrupt state. Besides the corrupt governors, 31 out of 100 of Chicago aldermen since 1973 have been convicted of corruption, an incredible continuity of criminality. Most of these convictions involved bribes to influence government decisions. When states are ranked by convictions of public officials per capita, we see that corruption is non-partisan: the highest rates over the past 40 years were reached by Democratic Illinois and Washington, DC, and Republican North and South Dakota and Mississippi. On this score, the least corrupt states are in the West: Oregon, Washington and Utah.

These incidents pale in comparison to the deep corruption which plagues other nations. Two weeks ago dozens of Italian mobsters were arrested for forcing their way into the city government of Rome. An investigation has revealed “widespread and unchecked corruption of public money” through nationwide crime syndicates infiltrating local governments, using them to siphon millions from public treasuries. While ordinary Italians suffer from inept or nonexistent public services, politicians and gangsters rake in illegal profits.

A new book describes Russia under Vladimir Putin as a “kleptocracy”, in which billions of rubles in public assets were seized by high-ranking Communist Party members, especially KGB operatives like Putin. He now rules an increasingly authoritarian state designed to preserve these corrupt gains by undermining internal democratic forces, weakening the independent media, and spreading disinformation in the West.

The organization Transparency International publishes a “Corruption Perceptions Index”, ranking nations “based on expert opinions of public sector corruption”, by which is meant “prevalent bribery, lack of punishment for corruption and public institutions that don’t respond to citizens’ needs.” The oldest democracies in Europe and North America are the least corrupt, while nations in the Middle East, Africa and Asia rank highest. The United States does not come out very well, perceived as more corrupt than most western European countries, closer to Chile, Uruguay and Hong Kong than to England, Germany or Canada.

Corruption can be rooted out only by a combination of political and popular will. But while many politicians and citizens decry corruption, it is apparently all too easy to give that fight a low priority. New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo set up a new “independent” ethics commission in 2013 to attack corruption. When the panel issued a subpoena to a firm that counted Cuomo as a client, his office demanded they withdraw it. This March, Cuomo disbanded the commission. New York voters displayed a similar apathy when they re-elected Republican Michael Grimm to Congress, despite his 20-count indictment for tax fraud. Three other New York state legislators who are under indictment also won, a Republican and two Democrats.

Transparency International cites “elections decided by money” as a sign of public corruption. The role of private money in public elections is much greater in the US than anywhere else. Giant campaign contributions allow the richest Americans and their corporations to write Congressional legislation. Because the ability of the wealthy to buy American elections through campaign contributions is legal, it does not count in international comparisons of corruption. But if we cannot reduce the influence of money in our political system, we may eventually lose our democracy to legalized corruption.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, December 16, 2014