Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Europe is Alive and Well

On Saturday, 4000 Berliners gathered at the Brandenburg Gate to make a political statement – Happy Birthday, Europe! They let loose blue balloons, carried blue flags with yellow European Union stars, and trampled a “wall” made of cardboard cartons. Saturday was the 60th anniversary of the Rome treaty among 6 nations which created the European Economic Union, the first step towards today’s European Union of 28 nations.

Not long ago, such a celebration would have been unlikely. United Europe has many problems. The economic difficulties of some southern countries, especially Greece, required international financial assistance. Unemployment and sluggish growth persist in many countries. Refugees from northern Africa and the Middle East have put enormous pressure on the more prosperous countries of western Europe.

Nationalist, so-called “populist” politicians and parties have won new popularity and power in the last few years by attacking the EU. The British vote to leave the EU was the heaviest blow against European unity. Marine le Pen of the National Front in France is one of the front-runners in the presidential election next month, whom recent polls give about 26% among four major candidates. Her platform is anti-immigration, anti-Muslim, and anti-EU. Geert Wilders, a Dutch politician who hates Muslims and is against non-white immigration and the EU, appeared on his way to winning their presidential election earlier this month.

Nationalist politicians have recently gained power in Poland and Hungary, and are part of coalition governments in Finland and Denmark. In the April 2016 Austrian presidential election, the Euro-sceptical and anti-immigration Freedom Party won the most votes in the first round.

Alternative fuer Deutschland (AfD) was founded in 2013 as a critic of the pro-European policies of the German government, and has gradually moved further and further right towards opposition to immigration, homophobia, Islamophobia, and denial of climate change. It is the only German party which talks about leaving the EU. The AfD got 4.7% of the national vote in 2013 and 7.1% in 2014. National support in 2016 reached 12-15%, and seemed to be heading higher.

The election of Donald Trump, who made disparaging statements about Europe and selected advisors who have promoted the break-up of the EU, was a turning point in European politics, but not in the direction he favors. His apparent withdrawal of American support for a united Europe pushed Europeans to a more vigorous defense of their unprecedented international alliance and the values it promotes: tolerance, human rights, fluid borders.

Just after Trump’s election, a married couple from Frankfurt, Germany, decided with some friends to demonstrate support for a united Europe. In February, 600 people came to a meeting. On March 5, there were public demonstrations in 35 cities under the name “Pulse of Europe”. The first theme listed on their website is “Europe must not fail.” Their method is also clear: “Let us become louder and more visible!” That is exactly what Europeans have done recently. The Pulse of Europe website now lists 53 German cities and 14 others, where every Sunday a pro-Europe demonstration takes place.

The tide has turned against the right-wing parties. The Austrian Freedom Party lost to a Green politician in the presidential run-off in December 2016. Wilders’ support in the Netherlands peaked and fell, and his second-place finish and lower than expected vote totals have been cheered across Europe. Support for the AfD in Germany has been dropping since January.

A major survey in 2015 of European public opinion shows majority support for the EU: 71% of citizens wanted their country to remain in the Union. Within the 28 nations of the EU, 59% preferred more integration, 16% were satisfied with current levels, and only 24% wanted less.

A few nights ago, I saw a big poster in the center of Berlin: “Only those who don’t value freedom can cast doubt on Europe.” It’s part of new advertising campaign for Berlin called “#FreiheitBerlin” or “Freedom Berlin. ”The quotation comes from Nicol Ljubić, a novelist with Croatian background, who lives in Berlin. Like many people across Europe, he associates freedom with a united Europe.

Of course, everyone has some complaint about the EU, some criticism of policies hammered out among 28 nations. But the threats to European integration, from outsiders like Trump and insiders like Le Pen and Wilders and the AfD, have made people here in Germany and all over Europe more willing to become louder and more visible, saying not only “Europe must not fail,” but also “Europe is good.”

Europe is good. Three times as many Europeans as Americans trust their national legislatures. One-sixth as many Europeans as Americans are in jail, probably related to the fact that one-fifth as many murders occur. Health care is universal and Europeans live longer. According to the “World Happiness Report”, Europeans are the happiest people in the world. Americans do pretty well, too, ranking 14th, about the same as Germans.

Such comparisons are not meant to prove that Europe is better than the US. But they do show that Europe, more and more united over the past 60 years, is not a failure, as American conservatives often assert. United Europe has created peace and prosperity across the continent for 60 years.
Happy Birthday, Europe!

Steve Hochstadt
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, March 28, 2017

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Democracy Demands Wisdom In Its Citizens

I have been working for a few years on a project about the history of race relations in Jacksonville, Illinois. Unlike the surrounding towns, and most of the country, Jacksonville’s residents promoted very progressive ideas about racial equality since the town’s founding in 1825. Jacksonville was nationally known in the 19th century for liberal race relations, for promotion of women’s education, and for its concentration of educational institutions and intellectual achievement. During the 20th century, Jacksonville’s fading significance buried these remarkable achievements in forgetfulness. I hope to rediscover what made this little town on the frontier so unusual.

To support this local historical project, I applied for a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The NEH is a federal agency that supports humanities projects in every state, meaning projects in history, literature, law, and other fields which fulfill the general guidelines of the law which created it in 1965: “the study and application of the humanities to the human environment with particular attention to reflecting our diverse heritage, traditions, and history”. In that legislation, the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act, which also created the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), Congress offered some basic ideas about the nature of our democracy.

“The Congress hereby finds and declares – (1) that the encouragement and support of national progress and scholarship in the humanities and the arts, while primarily a matter for private and local initiative, is also an appropriate matter of concern to the Federal Government; (2)  that a high civilization must not limit its efforts to science and technology alone but must give full value and support to the other great branches of man’s scholarly and cultural activity; (3) that democracy demands wisdom and vision in its citizens ...; (4) that it is necessary and appropriate for the Federal Government to complement, assist, and add to programs for the advancement of the humanities and the arts by local, state, regional, and private agencies and their organizations; (5) that ... it is necessary and appropriate for the Federal Government to help create and sustain not only a climate encouraging freedom of thought, imagination, and inquiry but also the material conditions facilitating the release of this creative talent”.

The budget of the NEH totals about $150 million per year. Adjusted for inflation, that amount has been stable for the past 20 years, through Democratic and Republican Presidents and Congresses. About $43 million of that total goes yearly to the humanities councils of the 50 states, to distribute as they wish. Spending for the NEH costs each American less than 50 cents a year.

What do we get for that? The NEH website lists the most famous recipients, who won Pulitzer prizes and whose books were published with great fanfare. Most grants go to lesser known people. In Illinois, 14 faculty received grants in 2016 to support their research for one year. Money was given to the Chicago History Museum, the American Institute of Indian Studies, and the Field Museum of Natural History. Like many small and mid-sized museums across the country, the Elmhurst Historical Museum got $1000 to bring a traveling exhibitions to small-town America. The Naperville Heritage Society received support for a local history project.

I once served on a panel to decide NEH awards for history projects. We read many detailed applications, then met to find consensus on the best. That meant those applications for the most interesting projects where applicants appeared most likely to carry them to completion. Politics meant nothing, only quality of application.

The budget proposal made last week by the Trump administration completely eliminates funding for the NEH and the NEA. The Defense Department plans to buy over 2000 new F-35 supersonic warplanes in the coming decades and just announced an agreement with Lockheed Martin for 90 of these jets at $95 million per plane. Just one and half of these planes would pay the entire NEH budget.

The budget proposal foresees a $2 billion down payment on the border wall against Mexico. There are many estimates for total cost of the Wall. Senator Mitch McConnell says $12 to $15 billion, while a Department of Homeland Security internal report puts the cost at over $20 billion. Taking even the conservative estimate, those funds would keep the NEH in business for 100 years.

But this is not really about money. Conservative politicians have opposed using federal funds to support the humanities and the arts since the beginning. In 1965, Democrats overwhelmingly voted to create the NEH and the NEA, with nearly all of the Democratic “no” votes coming from the South. A majority of Republicans voted “no”.

Conservative Republican politicians don’t believe that “democracy demands wisdom and vision in its citizens”. They attack the findings of geology, evolutionary biology, and climate science. They support the spread of fake news and promote alternative facts. They disparage the media in general. There is nothing new about the attacks on truth and knowledge by the Trump administration except its shamelessness.

Let’s go back to the words of the Congress in 1965, a time when Americans also wanted our country to be great. “The world leadership which has come to the United States cannot rest solely upon superior power, wealth, and technology, but must be solidly founded upon worldwide respect and admiration for the Nation’s high qualities as a leader in the realm of ideas and of the spirit”.

Steve Hochstadt
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, March 21, 2017

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

All the Bad News That’s Fit to Print

A quiet Saturday morning, reading the newspapers that have piled up during the week. As is true everywhere, the news that gets printed is mostly bad.

Here’s an article about prostitution in Europe, where laws regulating sex for money differ from nation to nation. It turns out that in countries where the laws are the most generous for the women involved, there is more human trafficking of unwilling women from Eastern Europe and Africa, thousands per year, smuggled across borders, forced into prostitution.

Here’s a long article about how collective farms in East Germany were dissolved into private property after the fall of the Wall in 1989 and the unification of Germany. Many, perhaps most farmers whose land, tools, and animals had been taken by the Communist state in the 1950s to be agglomerated into collective farms received much less in this redistribution than they originally owned. The local big shots, especially collective farm managers, used their connections and knowledge to skirt the laws and give themselves the lion’s share of collective land. Nearly 30 years later, social resentment burns quietly across the rural landscape.

On Friday, the two airports in Berlin were completely shut down by a strike of the ground crew who guide the planes in and out of the gates, and the baggage handlers who load and unload the planes. Their union asks for a raise from $10 to $11 an hour, but the employers offer 30 cents. Thousands of passengers and potential passengers are out of luck.

Germany and Turkey are engaged in a bitter argument sparked by the increasingly dictatorial politics of Turkey’s President Recep Erdoğan. The correspondent for a major German newspaper, who reported on the involvement of Erdoğan’s son-in-law in secretly supplying weapons to the terrorist Islamic State, has been arrested as a spy. Like hundreds of other journalists in Turkey, he sits in prison for doing his job. German protests have had no effect.

A short report about a group of young men who beat up another man because he is gay.

There is so much bad news and so many innocent people who are hurting. Sometimes it’s just about inevitable conflicts, where both sides have reasonable arguments, but their interests clash. Usually the better-off win. Sometimes it’s about real injustices, where bad people pursue their own greedy self-interest, not caring about what happens to others. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.

The storm of bad news from across the world delivered to us now even on our phones can be numbing. The bigger the world is, the smaller we feel. We hear more about global events, but feel less personally connected, less involved in daily realities. Another disaster, what can I do? Another injustice, another tragedy, another conflict far out of my reach. Not my fault, not my problem.

My instinct is to want to help, to try to solve the problem, to make people happy. I say instinct, because the feeling is not rational. I don’t know any of the people involved in those stories I read. I can’t even do much for the woman who sits every day at the entrance to my subway station, begging pathetically in some unknown language. Whether I give her a few coins or not, I can’t solve her problems.

Pope Francis has thought about human moral responsibilities much more clearly than most. He says, give the woman a coin when she asks, because “it’s always right” to give to someone in need. He emphasized that the giving should be accompanied by respect and compassion. See the person to whom you give, look them in the eyes.

I can’t help journalists in Turkey or farmers in eastern Germany, but I can contribute to her welfare, even if only a little bit. If I do, I’m a bit happier, and so is she. The purpose is not to make me feel good, but to recognize our ability to influence our surroundings. If we practice charity, we get better at it. We lengthen our reach an inch at a time. We climb out of self-pitying despair towards active engagement with our world. We recognize our social nature.

The ideology of individualism is strong in America. Democracy is founded on the right to be an individual, different from the crowd, able to determine our own journey. But individualism turns too easily into egotism, greed, disdain for others, everyone for themselves. We must combine the yin of individualism with the yang of altruism. What do others want? Are they as justified as I am? Can I help them rather than stand in their way?

Just asking, “what can I do?” with an open mind brings us out of ourselves and closer to others. In many cases, the answer is “nothing”. But not in every case.

I drop a coin in her cup. We are both better off. So is the world.

Steve Hochstadt
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, March 14, 2017