Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The Character Test is Dead

In 2016, Donald Trump confounded every informed opinion about his campaign’s chances for success. The same question kept returning: why didn’t this particular outrageous display of personal character sink his ship? Trump was confident that his personal morality would make little difference: “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” That was in January 2016.

A report on new poll results says “only 73% of Republicans” approve his performance. Why “only”? The great majority approve of what he has done, and presumably are looking forward to more of the same.

This keeps surprising the media. In February, CNN tried to explain what puzzled them: “Why Trump’s supporters still love him.” In April, the Huffington Post asked, “At 100 Days, Why Do Most Of Trump’s Voters Still Love Him?” Now it’s August and little has changed. Trump bet that character doesn’t matter, and he keeps winning.

A sea change has swept over the public consciousness of our country since the 1950s. In the America that Trump’s supporters believe was great, character mattered. You might be a jerk in business, in academia, in politics and get ahead. You might be a jerk in town, and still get elected to important local positions. You might be jerk at home and abuse your family, but still parade as a family man.

But being a jerk didn’t help. Those who got caught cooking the books or cheating their customers or beating weaker people up could lose everything. Failing the character test in a public way meant disaster.

Passing the character test depended a lot on what the media were willing to make public. Dwight Eisenhower’s affair with Kay Summersby and JFK’s liaisons with many women were known, but treated gingerly by the press. Searching for the personal scandals of powerful men was considered sleazy.

Nixon’s enormous character failure, and the long-running national scandal that dominated the media in 1972-1974, changed the character test. Journalists and publishers grew more attuned to the use of character flaws as news. But adultery was not yet enough to sink an important politician. Arkansas Congressman Wilbur Mills was caught with a stripper, Fanne Fox, in 1974, but was reelected the next month. As the media embraced a new sexual ethic of visual exploitation in the 1970s and 1980s, it also embraced the virtues of sensationalized print. Gary Hart’s extramarital affair while he was running for President in 1988 showed that adultery had become a major element in the character test.

Other questions on the character test assumed conservative ideology was moral character. That has long been true. In the postwar decades, made-up accusations of “Communism” were sufficient to attribute severe moral failings to crusaders for labor and civil rights. 1950s gender rules were clearly represented in the character test: gay was sick, dominance was manly, ambition was unwomanly. Blackness was itself considered as a moral failing. The character test often functioned to weed out liberals by turning emotion into a flaw. Ed Muskie failed the character test in 1972 by tearing up in a New Hampshire snowstorm as he defended his wife against scurrilous lies planted by the Nixon White House.

These politicized claims about character have lost their persuasiveness. People, a lot of whom suffered personally from these ideas about character, have changed the test by challenging its premises. Race may always be a failing of our union, but the certainty that black skin is a character flaw is gone. Homosexuality no longer needs to be hidden from view for political success.

I have no statistics, but I believe that Republicans have adopted better to a media hungry for sensationalized scandal and contributed much to its triumph. Republicans tried during Bill Clinton’s entire presidency to make his sex life the key test of character. They impeached him for lying, an almost amusing idea in the Trump era. The character assassination of John Kerry in 2004 became the birther controversy for Obama.

That brings us back to Trump, who demonstrates that the character test is dead. His abuse of women, his cheating of people he hired, his personal nastiness, his lying and bragging, seem to have contributed to rather than hurt his appeal. Trump fails every test of character, but it makes no difference.

Even as personal behavior has become important in the careers of NFL players and TV personalities, it seems to have lost its relevance in politics. The careers of Adrian Peterson and Ray Rice were damaged by evidence of domestic violence, but Mark Sanford could have an affair, lie about it, use public funds to finance his adultery, and then get elected to Congress.

In fact, the character test may have been turned on its head. Trump appeals to a surprisingly large segment of Americans who like nastiness, who applaud insults, who cheer bloodshed, and who hate liberals and liberal ideas. When he grabs women and laughs about it, when he tells lies about good people, when he calls journalists “sick”, when he mocks the handicapped, and when he winks at white supremacists, his supporters are happy. Criticize what look like his character flaws and you’ll get nowhere with them.

But do it anyway. The character test is dead only if we let it die.

Steve Hochstadt
Springbrook WI
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, August 29, 2017

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

I Am An Antifa

An unfamiliar word is suddenly appearing in our public conversations – antifa, short for anti-fascist. It’s not a new word – opposition to fascism is as old as fascism itself. And so is the discomfort that the American political establishment feels about people who strongly oppose fascism.

The white supremacy movement that showed itself openly in Charlottesville criticizes anti-fascists for, of all things, violence, always trying to distract attention from their own violence. Now the mainstream is helping to make antifa a cursed label. The “Atlantic” equates antifa with “the violent left” alongside a photo of a burning fire extinguisher, and CNN congratulates itself on “unmasking the leftist Antifa movement”.

The real history of fascism and anti-fascism take a beating. Fascism as political idea originated in Italy in the early 20th century, and hundreds of fascist movements sprang up across the world in the 1930s. German National Socialism became the most powerful, but fascists also took control in Spain under Franco and in Portugal under Salazar. As Nazi Germany occupied most of Europe after 1939, fascist movements in Hungary, the Netherlands, Norway, and Albania exercised power under German domination. Excited fascists created parties in the oldest democracies in Great Britain and the US.

Fascism is much more than white supremacy, antisemitism, waving swastikas and giving the Hitler salute. It is a theory of society and government that disdains democracy for dictatorship, crushes labor unions in favor of corporate capitalism under full government control of the economy, espouses militant nationalism and male power.

Although the abhorrent qualities of fascism were abundantly clear in the ideas and actions of Mussolini and Hitler in the 1920s, opposing fascism made one suspect in America. Leaders of the American Legion, the Daughters of the American Revolution, and the resurgent KKK, and national leaders like Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh attacked Jews and sympathized with Nazi ideas.

When Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy attacked democratic Spain in 1936, the US and Great Britain remained neutral. Many Americans did not – thousands, mainly from the left, took up the banner of anti-fascism and volunteered to defend the Spanish Republic. They were then tormented by the American establishment in the anti-communist rage of the 1950s. It was impossible to hate “red” too much, but hating American manifestations of brown racist violence was suspect.

Today there are very few real fascists in the US. Our home-grown far-right fringe movements combine white supremacy with extreme individualism against government control, wild interpretations of America’s founding documents, but not one-man rule.

Unlike the proud fascists of the 1930s, right-wing ideologues today use “fascism” as a pejorative to attack liberals, fantasizing links between Nazis and Americans. When Sean Hannity characterizes the mainstream media as “fascist”, it is clear that the word has lost any clear meaning.

When American racism was confronted in the 1960s, American historians, some of whom went into the streets, too, began to challenge the sanitized version of our bloody and brutal history of white suprematacy that had become official history, universally taught to American schoolchildren, like me. They wrote a better history in the last 50 years, closer to what Americans experienced, freer of partisan politics, more attentive to the lives of average Americans. At the same time, conservatives promoted even more public veneration of Confederate leaders and their slave state, a second wave of Confederate monument building.

This better history corrects the image of American protesters that was so convenient for the conservative establishment. Instead of glorifying the KKK as true, if extreme, Americans, while striking workers, pacifists, and opponents of racism were dangerous law-breakers with foreign beliefs, the responsibility for violence in the service of anti-American ideas is laid where it belongs.

But it took Dylann Roof’s demonstration about the connection among Confederacy, racism, and murder to end the run of Hollywood’s and the FBI’s and conservatives’ Passion Play about the Lost Cause and bring this new history into public discussion. In just two years, universities, cities, organizations, corporations, legislatures, and political leaders have taken big steps toward facing their own histories.

There are 700 monuments and statues to the Confederacy, 100 schools, countless license plates, many military bases, county and city names. North Carolina has built 35 new ones since 2000.

The beginning of real change has brought out the howls of the far right, echoed too often in the mainstream. Some antifas are looking for violence. So are some Republican politicians, like Montana’s Greg Gianforte. But neither Republicans as a whole nor antifas in general promote or participate in violence.

The antifas merely let their principles direct their bodies, stopping normal life to oppose our home-grown version of right-wing extremism, saying as loud as they can that the Lost Cause and the KKK and the defense of slavery were un-American.

It was dangerous when my father and father-in-law and their whole generation went off to fight fascism on opposite sides of the globe. It was dangerous when young Americans volunteered to fight Jim Crow in the South in the 1960s. The defenders of American fascism and their fellow travelers want to make that dangerous now.

But I am proud to stand with the antifas. How about you?

Steve Hochstadt
Springbrook WI
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, August 22, 2017

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Long Hot Summers

It’s hot this summer.

Extreme heat is a problem. Plants wilt, especially if there is little rain. Air conditioning costs money and energy. Fires are more likely, road surfaces buckle, power systems fail. People and animals suffer on very hot days, sometimes fatally, and species go extinct.

Every summer is hot in the US, except maybe in Alaska, so it’s hard to tell if this hot day or hot week is different from last year. We need measurements, numbers, to know whether our discomfort is normal or unusual.

Sometimes numbers are misleading. In fact, apparently small changes in average temperature mean big changes in global climate. During the last Ice Age, average temperatures were only 9 degrees colder (in Fahrenheit) than today. The Paris climate agreements are supposed to prevent global average temperatures from rising more than 3.6 degrees from their average before industrialization. Who cares about 3.6 degrees?

Temperature measurements around the world have shown that 2014, 2015, and 2016 were each the warmest years on record. The first half of 2017 is the second-hottest since measurement began. But the differences in average world temperature year to year are seemingly small. The sum of global warming over the past century has been a little more than 2 degrees. These small numbers contribute to the skepticism that many people express about global warming and have allowed the Republican Party to continue its denial about global warming.

Now a new way of looking at our hot summers might help us realize how much global warming affects our lives. James Hansen has put together temperature data to show how our summers have changed over the past 50 years. He classified summer temperatures in the period 1951-1980 into cold, average and hot summers, with about a third of summers in each category. A tiny number of summers were “extremely cold” or “extremely hot”. This range of summer experiences is what we could call normal. There was only about 1 chance in 300 of an extremely hot summer.

The gradual warming of our planet since then has shifted this whole scale toward the hot end. In the period 2005-2015, “cold” summers nearly disappeared. The new normal is a “hot” summer and the number of “extremely hot” summers has multiplied to be about 1 in 7. Now we are in a new decade, and the warming, or maybe hotting, continues. If we don’t do something now, extremely hot will be the new normal.

What is extremely hot? In June, the West suffered the worst heat wave in decades. On June 19, temperatures went over 110 degrees across Arizona and southern California. Temperatures in Phoenix were so high that planes could not fly.

Last week, the Northwest experienced record-setting heat. Portland, Oregon, hit 105 and will set a record for number of consecutive days over 90 degrees, a record set in 2009. Wildfires in the Northwest combined with the heat to make Portland’s air quality worse than Beijing. The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality advised people to limit their time outside to a few hours, bad news for construction workers who can’t do that. Oregon Governor Kate Brown declared a state of emergency.

The heat wave in Europe has been named Lucifer. Across southern Europe temperatures reached over 105 degrees. In Italy, emergency room admissions are up 15%. Wildfires in many countries caused evacuations and road closures. Some regions face droughts.

And people die in heat waves. For example, over 700 people died in Chicago of heat-related causes in 1995, when the temperature reached over 100 for only two days. Heat waves kill more Americans than lightning, floods, hurricanes and tornadoes combined. A team of researchers led by Camilo Mora at the University of Hawaii at Manoa used historic data to determine what conditions make a heat wave deadly. Those conditions will become much more common: for example, New York currently has 2 days a year which qualify as a potentially deadly heat wave, but by 2100 could have 50 such days every year. None of us will be alive in 2100, but do we want to subject our children to 2 weeks of deadly heat waves every year after 2040 or 1 month after 2070?

Global warming is not a model or a prediction or a theory. It is happening to us now, making this summer unbearably hot for millions of Americans in the West. Next summer might be extremely hot in the South or Midwest. If we don’t make it extremely hot for our legislators in Washington, we will condemn our children and grandchildren to unbearable summers every year.

Steve Hochstadt
Springbrook, WI
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, August 8, 2017