Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Western Stand-Off

Over three weeks ago, a group of armed men occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon. The armed stand-off between the occupiers of a federal reserve and everyone else turns on a fundamental disagreement about democratic government and public property in America.

Malheur is located in an arid and lightly populated section of the huge Northern Great Basin in the West. Once this area was home to millions of large nesting birds, including egrets and greater sandhill cranes. In the late 19th century, hunters seeking feathers for hats nearly killed off these flocks. In 1908, Teddy Roosevelt established the Lake Malheur Reservation, one of 51 wildlife refuges he created as President. In the 1930s, over 1000 men in the Civilian Conservation Corps built stone buildings, miles of roads, bridges, camping facilities and lookout towers in the Refuge. They connected local communities with telephone lines. Jobs provided to local craftsmen, and purchases of food and supplies for the CCC enriched the economy of Harney County during the deepest Depression.

The Malheur Refuge is part of a nationwide system of wildlife refuges run by the US Fish and Wildlife Service within the Interior Department. Over 560 refuges across the country provide access to wildlife within an hour’s drive of most metropolitan centers. More than 45 million people visit the refuges every year for hunting, fishing, photography, hiking, or just watching. There are seven wildlife refuges in Illinois, including the Emiquon National Wildlife Refuge at the confluence of the Illinois and Spoon Rivers, wetlands for thousands of migratory ducks only 40 miles north of Jacksonville.

The angry men who have taken over the Malheur Refuge don’t care about the democratic public uses of these federally owned lands. The occupiers disdain the idea of public property. They want the US government to give up control of the wildlife refuge to private uses. They asked local people to sign documents repudiating the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's authority.

A list of people who are occupying Malheur perhaps provides a sketch of the militia movement. Most have criminal records. Most went to Cliven Bundy’s ranch when he defied federal officials in 2014. Many have failed economically and owe money to the government they are protesting. Many had participated in another destructive demonstration of their disdain for public use in May 2014, when they drove ATVs through a canyon closed to motorized vehicles because it houses thousand-year-old ruins of dwellings and burial sites of Native Americans.

The occupiers thought local people would welcome them. The opposite is true. The ranchers whom the occupiers claimed they wanted to protect from arrest have criticized them. The Sheriff of Harney County condemned their intimidation of local law enforcement. A group of sportsmen, Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, tore down a makeshift sign put up by the occupiers, and denounced their taking of public lands. A few days after the occupation began, the Sheriff asked hundreds of local residents at a public meeting at the Harney County Fairgrounds if the occupiers should leave. Nearly everybody raised their hands.

Like Cliven Bundy, their spiritual and political godfather, they want these lands, improved by a century of public investment, to be used for private economic benefit. In 20124, Bundy had concocted arguments about why the Constitution allowed him to have free grazing rights on public land, which every court rejected. He continued to graze his cattle on public land, but stopped paying. He used the language of the “sovereign citizen” movement to defend his right to ignore all government authorities. Ammon Bundy, his son and one of the stand-off leaders, rejects the authority of the FBI.

It’s not always useful to listen to a movement’s loudest mouths. But the Bundys have rallied this small occupation, and the wider movement of armed opponents of our democratic government, behind their expression of basic ideas.

They all wave the Constitution, along with “history books” that allege some connection between our founding document and their current politics. They reject all forms and manifestations of national government authority. That’s not a Constitutional interpretation that anyone else shares. It doesn’t derive from the document, it precedes it. The basis of this interpretation was made abundantly clear by Ammon Bundy: “I did exactly what the Lord asked me to do.” Cliven and Ammon Bundy in 2014 and now Ammon Bundy again cited passages from the Book of Mormon as justification for their actions.

The sovereign occupier movement is a religious rebellion against the political structure of our country. All the nation’s authorities about that structure, from local law enforcement to state judges to the Supreme Court, plus the accumulated wisdom of generations of historians, reject the occupier movement’s claim to be supported by the Constitution. Leaders in the Church of the Latter Day Saints said they “are deeply troubled by the reports that those who have seized the facility suggest that they are doing so based on scriptural principles.”

In a 2014 survey, law enforcement agencies said sovereign citizen groups pose the greatest threat to their communities, more than radical Islamists.

Economists might applaud their tactics. If I wave the Bible and the Constitution and my gun and my cowboy hat enough, we won’t have to pay what we owe. So far it’s worked.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, January 26, 2016

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Watergate was a Big Deal

Every political scandal gets compared to Watergate. Newt Gingrich tweeted in 2012: “No one died at Watergate! The Obama lies about Benghazi and Biden's deliberate lies Thursday night should be a bigger scandal than Nixon”. Senator Jim Imhofe (OK) pledged, “I will say this to my dying day, I know people don’t realize it now, but that's going to go down in history as the greatest cover-up.” He hasn’t died yet, but he isn’t making that overblown claim any more. Rep. Steve King (Iowa) went over the top: “if you link Watergate and Iran-Contra together and multiply it times maybe 10 or so, you're going to get in the zone where Benghazi is”. King shows what Republicans really want to do: erase the stain of their two most significant political scandals.

Even the suicide of Clinton staffer Vince Foster was compared to Watergate. But no political scandal since then can compare with a President authorizing burglaries by White House staff in order to win re-election, then lying about his administration’s cover-up. Nobody died. But Watergate killed the political innocence of many Americans.

Watergate changed me. I was living in Maryland, just over the border from Washington, from 1971 to 1973. My daily paper was the Washington Post. What happened in Congress and the White House was local news.

But the destruction of my faith in American government began even before Watergate. In June 1971, the New York Times began to publish excerpts from the Pentagon Papers, the Defense Department’s own history of our involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967. Daniel Ellsberg, a Defense Department analyst who had worked on this history, photocopied thousands of pages and gave them to a reporter for the Times. After three articles, the Nixon administration got a restraining order against publication, but the Supreme Court ruled within weeks that publication was justified. Soon the Times, the Washington Post and other papers published documents showing that every President since Truman had misled the American public about Vietnam.

As the deep bipartisan dishonesty of our government began to sink in, another scandal began. Nixon had Ellsberg indicted for espionage, but the White House also created a secret investigation team which burglarized the office of his psychiatrist, trying to discredit Ellsberg. This team, who came to be called the Plumbers, went to work for Nixon’s re-election campaign. Their burglaries of the Democratic Party’s campaign headquarters in the Watergate complex in May and June 1972 were only one piece of the extensive illegal operations coordinated out of Nixon’s White House: bugging of political opponents’ offices, use of the FBI, CIA and IRS to harass activist groups, and then a massive cover-up by Nixon and his aides.

The Plumbers were caught at Watergate in June, and from then on, nearly every day brought a new revelation about the corruption at the center of our government. Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, aided by secret revelations of “Deep Throat”, who turned out to be deputy director of the FBI William Mark Felt, gradually uncovered the lies and illegal activities coordinated from the White House and carried out by the leaders of national law enforcement, Attorney General John Mitchell and the FBI. Nixon denied and denied, but his taping system in the Oval Office proved that he was a criminal, trying to subvert our political system.

My attitude toward the government has never been the same. The mistrust of government which is such a prominent feature today began with Watergate. Surveys about public trust in government show high levels through the mid-1960s, then a catastrophic drop during the 1970s, from about three-quarters of the population trusting our government to only one quarter in 1980. Since then, consistently less than half of Americans have trusted our government, with this difference: Democrats and Independents have oscillated mildly from administration to administration, while Republican trust has gone up over 50% under Republican presidents, and dropped under 20% under Democratic presidents.

Even after Ronald Reagan admitted that his administration had sold arms to Iran and used the proceeds to fund rebels in Nicaragua, both of which were explicitly prohibited by law, Republicans maintained their level of trust in government. Republican mistrust of Obama is a continuation of their attitude of only trusting Republican government.

Those high levels of Republican distrust for all recent Democratic presidents, Carter, Clinton and Obama, are behind the occasionally hysterical outbursts of Republican fury, leading them to spend millions of dollars on Congressional investigations of every problem every Democratic president encounters. So-called Filegate and Travelgate spawned Congressional committee investigations and occupied independent counsel Kenneth Starr for years, before he produced a complete exoneration of the Clintons and all their staff.

Starr delayed announcing his findings until after the 1998 Congressional elections. That example of the political use of such investigations shows the other reason why Republicans keep crying “Watergate”. More than one Republican Congressman admitted that the House Select Committee on Benghazi was mainly the House Republican Committee to Get Hillary.

Watergate was a unique moment of presidential corruption. Many Republican figures pleaded or were found guilty. The vote to impeach Nixon in the House Judiciary Committee was bipartisan. There is no point in continuing the Republican cover-up.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, January 19, 2016

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Teaching Hate, Learning Hate

How do we learn to hate? I don’t mean difficult neighbors or jerky celebrities. How do we learn to hate whole groups of people about whom we know little?

Hatred of the “other”, people who are not like us, has been a constant in human societies since before the Bible was written. Group hatred was the fundamental cause of the genocides which characterized the 20th century, from beginning (mass killing of Herero people in southwestern Africa by the German Army in 1904-07) to end (Serbian mass murder of Muslims in Bosnia 1992-5). In the US we are still dealing with the mass hatreds against natives and blacks which have stained and bloodied our history.

It’s trite, but true to say that babies don’t hate. Children happily play with other children of different races and religions until they are told that it’s wrong. To hate specific groups of people, humans must be taught hatred.

In 21st-century America, mass hatred focuses on three groups: blacks, gays, and Muslims. The ancient hatred of Jews, which was still played out in social exclusion when I was young, has nearly disappeared in the Western world. It took the murder of more than one-third of the world’s Jews to make Christians realize the effects of centuries of Jew-hatred propounded as official religious doctrine. Now the fact that Bernie Sanders is Jewish hardly figures in discussions of his campaign for President.

The hatred of black descendants of African slaves brought to the New World has been much more central to American history. Long after slavery ended, Americans in every state organized to promote hatred of blacks. Recent research by historian John Kneebone of Virginia Commonwealth University has widened our understanding of the primary promoter of race hatred, the Ku Klux Klan. Between the world wars, over 2000 local “klaverns” were organized in every state, including one in Jacksonville. In Indiana in the 1920s, about one-third of white native-born men were Klan members. The KKK was not run by ignorant hicks, but included men prominent in their communities and in politics. Klan preachings of race hatred were reflected in movies, books, newspapers and educational curricula.

Klan membership died out by 1940, as the organizations disbanded. The influence of their messages of hate lived long afterwards. Americans like me who grew up in the postwar years, meaning the people who have held, now hold, and will continue to hold power in this country, were raised with messages of anti-black hatred ringing in our ears. Local laws, police practices, judicial decisions, and social customs reflected the widespread acceptance of the traditions of American racism well into the 1960s. Then it gradually became a social error to openly espouse hatred for African Americans, for the first time in American history. Lee Atwater, the long-time Republican strategist, revealed how Republicans continued to use racism as a political motivation in the more genteel post-civil rights era.

The Pandora’s box of racial hatred was still open, when the election of Barack Obama suddenly lent partisan cover to the recycling of traditional racism.

When I was young, I didn’t know that so many people hated homosexuals. Nobody talked about homosexuality, except to voice popular taunts about effeminate men. Open public discussion about gay sexuality, and a slightly disguised public hatred of gay people, has become a feature of our public life since the 1970s.

But long before, a crusade to teach hatred of homosexuals had been pursued by our government. Beginning in 1937, the FBI organized a systematic campaign to identify gay people, compile “intelligence” about their activities, broadcast this information across government, inject it into the public domain, and get their targets fired from their jobs.

Gay marriage is hardly one of the pressing issues facing our nation today. Yet the Republicans have made their anti-gay position into one of the basic pillars of Party ideology. You can find Republicans who urge the Party to tolerate (that’s the best they offer) the acceptance of homosexuality, but you can’t vote for them.

Today’s Republicans compete with each other to see who can tap into and nurture a popular political fear of radical Islam. They have no scruples about fomenting a more general hatred of all Muslims as a tool to their own political power.

They have joined the international chorus popularizing hate. The American wing of PEGIDA, the Islamophobic fascist movement in Germany, tweeted happily last year, “Donald Trump doubles down on his stand AGAINST TAKING IN MORE SYRIAN MUSLIMS”. They loved Ted Cruz (“Ted Cruz !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”) when he suggested killing the Ayatollah if Iran acquired a nuclear weapon.

PEGIDA Iceland loves Trump and PEGIDA Ireland loves Cruz. The only Republicans who mention PEGIDA are media stars, who wholeheartedly approve. They don’t recognize racism when it comes right of their mouths, as Gov. Paul LePage of Maine demonstrated the other day.

Hatred and anger are powerful political emotions. Republican candidates believe they can employ the politics of hate to win elections and then later control the hatred they encourage. Meanwhile they teach their supporters that social hatred is good for America. Those lessons take a long time to unlearn.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, January 12, 2016