Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Taking Back Our Lives

When I started writing this weekly column about 10 years ago, I gave it this title. I felt it was important for me, and possibly for others, to take more control over our lives, to fight against the many forces and institutions which try, openly or secretly, to control us.

At that time, I was not thinking mainly about government, because I did not feel that our governments, local, state and federal, were asserting too much control over my life. Certainly there were actions taken by the federal government that worried me, notably the secret surveillance of our personal communications that George W. Bush’s administration had set into place. A report in 2009 written by the Inspectors General of all US intelligence agencies concluded that the program involved “unprecedented collection activities” that went far beyond the scope of its legislative basis and was based on a “factually flawed” legal analysis.

But I was more concerned about how private corporations took control over pieces of our lives, often without our knowing anything about it. Since then, we have learned much more about the invasions of our privacy perpetrated by the giants of the digital world, who collect information about what we do and buy, where we go, and whom we contact, and then sell it to other corporations, all of whom are thinking about profit.

So one way that I have tried to maintain more control over my life, to take it back from those who want to know more about me than I want them to know, is to keep as much of my life off the internet as possible. I buy online with credit cards as little as I can. I mainly use checks and cash. I stay away from Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc. I refuse to provide my telephone number or email address to most of the people who ask for it as a normal part of their employers’ snooping about their customers. I ignore the constant requests for me to respond to “surveys” about my “experiences”, because I believe they are mainly attempts to gather information about me. I don’t believe that I have suffered in any way from trying to retain these aspects of my private life.

But it’s not enough just to be defensive. To take control over our lives we also need to demand clearly what we want. We certainly deserve a better federal government than we have now, and that means learning about candidates, supporting ones we like, and voting every chance we get. When we spend money, we deserve to get value in return, and that means complaining when we don’t get it.

That brings me to the message I just sent to my local newspaper about the unacceptable quality of what they have been delivering to my door. I reproduce that letter to the editor here as an example of taking back my life. I am not suggesting that you do the same thing, although many of you live here in Jacksonville. I do urge you to be assertive about what you deserve to all those institutions who control chunks of our lives. Protest shoddy merchandise or service. Refuse to do business with crooks (I’m thinking about Wells Fargo here). Call upon authorities to behave as they have promised, to fulfill their obligations to us individually and collectively.

We won’t always get satisfaction. But without speaking up, we’ll get only what those who have power want to give us, which is often much less than we deserve. Both public government and private corporations have too much illegitimate power. Take back your life.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
May 21, 2019

To the Editor and Staff:

In the Journal-Courier of Saturday, May 18, the long story about the sexually abusive Ohio State University doctor appears two times, on pages 4 B and 8A, under slightly different headlines. That might seem to be a rare example of publishing error, akin to a 100-year flood. Except that, like the recent repetition of 100-year floods, I believe this is the third time in two months that the Journal-Courier has produced newspapers with the same story in two places.

Unlike floods, repeated instances of journalistic incompetence are preventable. Apparently, neither our local publishers nor Hearst Newspapers care enough about producing a quality newspaper to fix this problem. That was clear in the lead headline on page 1, where “musuem” was spelled incorrectly.

Is this related to the reduction in local content over the past year? Has some financial statistician at Hearst discovered that a local newspaper does not need local content or careful production to make money? Is that all that matters in Jacksonville journalism any more?

We subscribers deserve better. In exchange for our money, the Journal-Courier now guarantees to deliver the paper by 6 a.m., and claims to want to “be the undisputed news and editorial leader in West Central Illinois”, speaking “intelligently”, and embodying “the highest principles”. I don’t know what they mean by those words. I would like my subscription to pay for a promptly delivered, carefully produced and thoroughly researched daily newspaper that tells me things no other newspaper offers. What is happening in Jacksonville? What is happening in the rest of the world that we in Jacksonville should know about? What do people in Jacksonville have to say?

Only Hearst and other newspaper conglomerates are getting rich by journalism, by robbing us of the richness of good journalism. Generations of far-sighted Jacksonville newspaper people created a tradition based on other ideals. Is that going extinct, too, like our natural world?

Steve Hochstadt

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Lessons in Citizenship

Citizenship is becoming an ever bigger political issue. After some years of heated arguments about undocumented immigrants and whether they ought to be allowed to become citizens, a new front in the citizenship war has broken out over the census. The Trump administration wants to include the following question on the 2020 census form: “Is this person a citizen of the United States?” Possible answers include: born in the US, born abroad of US parents, naturalized citizen, and “not a US citizen”.

It certainly is useful to have accurate data on the citizenship status of our population. But political calculation lurks behind this question, based on the following chain of reasoning. In the midst of a Republican campaign against immigrants and immigration, a citizenship question might frighten immigrants, both legal and not, from responding to the census, thus lowering total population counts. The census results are used to apportion Congressional seats and Electoral College votes, including everyone counted, whether citizen, legal or unauthorized resident. Many federal spending programs distribute funds to states based on population. Places with large numbers of immigrants tend to be Democratic-leaning big cities, so there could be long-range political power implications if the count is skewed. Counting citizens and non-citizens connects to counting votes, the most important constitutional issue of our time.

The biggest impact could be in Democratic California, one of Trump’s most persistent adversaries: 27% of Californians are immigrants and 34% of adults are Latino. Studies have already shown that Latinos were undercounted in the 2010 census and non-Hispanic whites were overcounted, according to the Census Bureau itself. The amount of federal funds that California could lose if a citizenship question causes even larger undercounting could reach billions of dollars.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, Steve Bannon (then a white House advisor), Kris Kobach (then Kansas Secretary of State), and others decided in early 2018 to put in the citizenship question, last asked in the 1950 census. Ross claimed the impetus came from a concern in the Department of Justice about protecting voting rights, but journalists uncovered an email trail proving he lied. The chief data scientist of the Census Bureau, John Abowd, opposed the addition of a citizenship question, which he said “is very costly” and “harms the quality of the census count”, and would result in “substantially less accurate citizenship status data than are available” from existing government records.

Nevertheless, Ross decided to include the question. Democratic attorneys general for 17 states, the District of Columbia, and many cities and counties have mounted a legal challenge in federal courts across the country. Judges in three federal courts in California, New York, and Maryland have already ruled that there should be no citizenship question. One judge described the argument by Commerce Secretary Ross as “an effort to concoct a rationale bearing no plausible relation to the real reason.” Another judge called the Republican case a “veritable smorgasbord of classic, clear-cut” violations of the Administrative Procedures Act, a 73-year-old law which makes the simple demands that decisions by federal agencies must be grounded in reality and make logical sense.

The Supreme Court has agreed to take the case on an expedited basis. So the census absorbs considerable political weight and becomes itself a constitutional issue, pitting Democrats and Republicans on the stage of the Supreme Court. A lawyer for the Democratic-controlled US House of Representatives will be one of the four attorneys arguing against the citizenship question. He will repeat the political power argument on which the local Democratic authorities based their case: they have standing to sue, because they would lose House seats and federal funds due to deliberately skewed results.

The pure political weight of each seat on the Supreme Court has never been made so clear as in the past three years, where one seat in 2016 became the prize in a naked display of Republican Senatorial political power: we can do this, so we will. Now 5 Republican-appointed justices and 4 Democratic-appointed justices will decide the case. The decision will soon have consequences, when the 2020 Census results are used to allocate state and federal representation by Republican and Democratic legislatures for the next election, and even before that, to allocate federal dollars.

If you are interested in a fuller discussion of the significance of this case, go to the website of the National Constitution Center:
It is rare to find a detailed, logical, clear and unbiased description of the facts on such a politically charged issue.

While technical legal issues determine who is a citizen, each party has been proclaiming their version of a good citizen. Republicans have been clear about their version of how a good citizen should act. Hate the free press, because they only tell lies. Physically attacking journalists is okay for a Republican citizen, and elected  Republicans will defend your right to do that. The government elected by the citizens is evil, not a democratic institution, but one run by an unelected hidden “deep state”. Nothing is wrong with manipulating the tax system, because taxes are bad, the government wastes the money it collects, and the IRS is an ideological ally of the deep state, anyway. Citizens not only have the constitutional right to resist an oppressive government, but a good citizen treats our federal government as oppressive, and ought to resist it now, with the exception of everything the current President does.

It’s not necessary to be a violent white supremacist to be a good Republican citizen, but that’s not a disqualification. Disqualifications have to do with paperwork, with color, with where one was born, and with ideological viewpoints. Liberals are traitors to America, the worst kind of a citizen. People who believe in the right of a pregnant woman to control her own body are murderers, still citizens, but belonging in jail. Various other crimes of the mind disqualify Americans as good Republican citizens: advocating gun control, believing in climate change, and demanding that we protect the endangered environment.

Democrats need to tell Americans how we think about citizenship, not just the paperwork and the legalities, but the ethics and good behavior. I think a good American citizen:
1) Prizes the diversity of viewpoints that an ethnically and religiously diverse society produces;
2) Believes in the power of government to make people’s lives better;
3) Believes that government should act in the interests of all citizens, especially those who have the least resources;
4) Wants the government to protect the rights of minorities;
5) Believes that personal religion should be a free choice, but that the religious beliefs of no particular group should determine government policy.

If that is not a winning argument about what it means to be an American, then there will be no progress toward creating an equal and just democracy.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
May 14, 2019

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Team of Rivals

Donald Trump shows no signs of changing the behavior which has made him a target of ridicule and disbelief for many Americans, and even convinced some people in his “base” to abandon him. Over the next year, more information about his deceits will trickle out to the country. And he will get more anxious.

The array of Democratic candidates who want to replace him is dauntingly large, but it would be hard to find a more politically attractive and personally admirable class of presidential aspirants in our history. Each one presents a powerful challenge to Trump and everything he does. The constant worrying within liberal ranks about “electability” is useless and distracting. Against Trump and Republican politics, which also shows no sign of becoming less vindictive, the more we learn about most of the Democrats, the more there is to like.

Republican voter suppression is not enough to hand Trump another 4 years. But if these ambitious Democrats decide to put their own success first, to emphasize how their colleagues are wrong, if they try to be like Trump was within his Party in 2016, then he might win. Nobody’s better at doing Trump than Trump.

The Democrats, every one of them, are better than Trump. They are better because of what they share, their values and their determination to enact them for the good of the nation.

Democrats share one of the fundamental ideas of democracy: no institution, private or government, has the right to discriminate against chosen groups of less worthy citizens. They recognize how American discrimination from colonization to the present should determine political policies about the future. Republicans accuse Democrats of being dominated by “identity politics”, and this label seems to have stuck, which is intentionally ironic. Democrats practice anti-identity politics by arguing that identity should not matter, in the grocery store, in schools, in a restaurant, at polling places. Republicans protect their crude forms of identity politics by turning Democratic arguments on their head and claiming that religion, efficiency, and security trump equality. The targets of Republican special treatment are transgender students, gay couples, African American and Native American voters, former felons, immigrants legal and not, Muslims. Across the country, Republicans are concocting political schemes to make these people’s identities matter, to single them out.

Another basic message that’s easy to promote together is the rejection of Trump’s rejection of the alliances and the international agreements Americans have worked so hard to achieve. On this, as on so many issues to which Trump and the Republicans cling, a significant majority of Americans support the position Democrats have been taking since Trump took office: stay with the Paris climate accord, stay with the Iran nuclear agreement, stay with our long-term allies in Europe. There’s no need for any of the Democrats to do more than explain why the majority of voters is exactly right.

Democrats don’t have to allow Republicans to get any traction with charges of “tax and spend”. Democratic spending priorities are right in line with what most Americans want: maybe spend less, but not more on the military (68%); more not less on education (77%); more on helping the poor (71%); more on protecting the environment (66%).

The diversity of this Democratic team of rivals makes sending a unified message even more attractive. I want to see the entire company of black and white and Hispanic, gay and straight men and women who call themselves Democrats sing with one voice about how to make America greater than it is now. I don’t begrudge their later solos. But individually they won’t transform our politics. Only as a team that represents and portrays all Americans can they accomplish what is needed to revive our tattered democracy.

The Democrats have failed since the 1970s to control their own message. They have allowed conservative ideologues to create a cartoon about “quiche eaters” and communists, about elitism and condescension, about “tree huggers” and softies, about a majority of America that hates America. At this moment, Americans of all political persuasions want to hear about an alternative to our current political reality. It would be an extraordinary departure from political tradition for the Democrats to fight Trump as a team instead of warring with each other. But these are extraordinary times, or at least they seem to be.

I have gotten tired of the more than daily emails I get from the Bernie Sanders campaign saying “give to me”. They are not only repetitive. They carry the wrong message. Sanders’ slogan is “Not me. Us.” That should be taken to heart by all the Democratic candidates. I want to hear, “Give to us.”

I want to hear these Democrats congratulate each other on their fine careers, their political skills, their humane and practical policies. I want the veteran “front-runners” in the media race that our elections have become to say something good about the newbies. I want the newbies to acknowledge that the vets have accomplished much and haven’t just talked the talk. I want all the talk to be civil, respectful, collegial.

The party politics of Republicans today are abysmal. Let the Democrats display to an anxious nation a different party politics. I think nearly any of these Democrats could beat Trump, if they stressed together how they all are different than Trump, and thus the Republicans. That simple message has many parts, but it is a winning message, not just for 2020, but for the future party political map.

Here’s a losing message. “Kirsten Gillibrand wants to give voters $600 to spend on political campaigns”. That’s the online headline for USA Today’s story about her very individual campaign proposal, echoed by many media outlets. It’s not exactly what she said: vouchers not gifts, only for candidates who reject contributions of more than $200 from any individual. But she should have known how the idea would be reported and the opportunities for ridiculing all Democrats she has delivered to the other side. She should know that the proportion of taxpayers who mark the $3 checkoff on tax returns for financing federal elections has dropped from 29% in 1977 to 19% in 1992 to 4% in 2018. Major party candidates don’t take the small amounts that are offered by this fund, because they won’t agree to limit other sources of funding.

Gillibrand is below 1% among Democratic respondents in the latest Quinnipiac poll. Rather than going off on her own dangerous tangent, she would do better to become part of a Democratic chorus. Democratic voters are clear about what they want from a candidate: not a particular race or gender, but attention to race and gender; not someone who criticizes other Democrats, but someone who can work with Republicans, while also standing up to their pernicious policies.

53% of respondents told the Quinnipiac pollsters that they definitely will not vote for Trump. Stacy Abrams and Beto O’Rourke showed that young Democrats can run neck-and-neck even in Georgia and Texas with well-known Republicans who orbit around Trump. If Democrats present a unified alternative, they can do even better than that, and upend American politics. Or they can upend each other, and hand 2020 to the Republicans.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
May 7, 2019