Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Those Crazy Republicans


There are some wild candidates out on the trail this election season. I can’t remember a time when so many unusual candidates for political office made headlines through what they say and do.

Maybe it’s the length of the campaign season, underway since the beginning of the year, meaning at least 10 months of constant campaigning for a midterm election. Campaigning for the 2016 presidential election was already in progress when Ted Cruz in March 2015 and Hillary Clinton in April became the first announced candidates for each party. By the time we vote this November, we will have been bombarded with political campaigns for about 30 of 42 months.

Our legislators are able to do less, because they campaign more. Most of their actual work, that we pay them well for, does not involve serious discussions about the problems the rest of us face. The work that many politicians for high office do most of the time is exaggerate their own accomplishments, make promises they can’t keep, and tell lies about their opponents. Campaigning brings out the least reasonable, least forthright, least truthful side of even the most honest politicians.

So it’s no wonder that national politics brings out some wacky people. People who think that having lots of money or shouting on talk radio or running some corporation means they are ready to run our country. People who think they already know it all and don’t mind telling you. But some candidates these days are so ideologically vicious, so impervious to reality, and so incompetent that they are dangerous to themselves and us.

It’s unusual to have an avowed Nazi from a major party running for Congress, but this year we have two. Patrick Little, who calls the Holocaust a “propaganda hoax” and wants to limit the number of Jews in government, ran in California’s June primary and came in 12th. Arthur Jones, a neo-Nazi and Holocaust denier, ran unopposed in the Republican primary in a Chicago congressional district. He got 20,681 votes, even though he raised no money and his long history of Nazi sympathies was known a month before the vote. His district is mainly Democratic.

More likely to end up in Congress, Paul Nehlen, who is running for the seat that Paul Ryan is vacating in Wisconsin, describes himself as a “pro-White Christian American candidate”. He regularly tweets antisemitic comments about “the Jewish media” and says that “Jews will burn in hell.” He has been supported by all the luminaries of the Republican right: Sarah Palin, Ann Coulter, Laura Ingraham, and Sean Hannity.

More competitive and somewhat less distasteful, Corey Stewart is a Republican Senate candidate from Virginia. Last year he called Nehlen “one of my personal heroes” and has appeared together with Jason Kessler, the white nationalist who organized the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville. Last year he revived the idea that President Obama’s birth certificate was “forged” by Democrats.

Brian Kemp won the Republican primary for governor in Georgia. He made a name for himself as Georgia’s Secretary of State by trying to keep African Americans from voting. After years of heavy-handed investigations of non-existent “voter fraud”, Kemp achieved no charges, no indictments, and no convictions, but successfully kept thousands of newly registered citizens from voting. His TV ads show him with various guns, threatening to use his “big truck” to “round up” undocumented immigrants.

Kris Kobach exemplifies what continual campaigning rather than practical politics brings to a democracy. He has said for years that voter fraud is so rampant in America that we need unprecedented new restrictions on voting. That earned him a new office in Trump’s administration with the power to find out exactly where that fraud is. He found nothing. Don’t hold your breath waiting for him to admit that he has been wrong all this time. He earned big bucks “consulting” with towns which passed new anti-immigration laws. The towns lost big in court. He wrote the Kansas law requiring people who wanted to register to vote to prove their citizenship. A federal judge struck down the law as unconstitutional and rebuked Kobach personally for violating rules of the courtroom: Kobach was held in contempt and required to go back to class for 6 hours of legal education.

How incompetent can you get? But Kobach is very good at riling up Kansas Republicans and he just squeaked by in the Republican primary for governor.

These men are not representative of all Republicans running for election this November. But such far-right ideologues are becoming more numerous, because of the example of Donald Trump. Corey Stewart claimed in 2016, “I was Trump before Trump was Trump.” Trump endorsed Kobach and Kemp in their primaries.

Making wild charges about rigged elections seems to win Republican votes. Failing to prove them doesn’t matter. Playing with racism and hanging around with racists doesn’t matter either. Paying no attention to the real problems in America, like persistent poverty and crumbling infrastructure, doesn’t matter. Maybe the only thing that will matter is if the rest of us vote against them.

Steve Hochstadt
Springbrook WI
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, August 14, 2018

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

How to Kill the Free Press


Anti-democratic rulers always try to prevent a free press from reporting what they are doing. Authoritarian governments past and present have developed a model for eliminating independent news reporting. Donald Trump and his allies are creating a different model, with disastrous long-term effects for American democracy.

The common model has been to shut down unsupportive newspapers and to create their own “news” outlets spouting official “truth”. When the Bolsheviks took power in Russia in October 1917, they were uncertain about how much press freedom they would allow. During the New Economic Policy period from 1921 to 1928, limited freedom to publish was given to sympathetic non-Communists. After Stalin took power, however, every word published in the Soviet Union had to conform to strict government guidelines.

When the Nazis came to power in 1933, there were 4700 newspapers in Germany, but the Nazis took control over the published word much more quickly than the Soviets had. Leftist parties were outlawed and their newspapers seized. Two Jewish publishing empires owned by the Ullstein and Mosse families were destroyed within a year. Critical journalists fled the country. Joseph Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry issued detailed daily guidelines about what could be printed, with the threat of arrest and concentration camp for those who disobeyed. By the end of the Nazi regime, there were only about 1000 newspapers, and those owned by the Nazi Party outsold independent organs 5 to 1.

Violent repression, censorship and news written by the government were the hallmarks of the Nazi and Soviet destruction of press freedom. This model has been followed by many repressive regimes since then, and extended to news media on radio and TV.

The connection between control of journalism and development of authoritarian government is demonstrated most clearly today in Recep Erdogan’s Turkey. As Erdogan jailed political opponents and reconstituted the government to consolidate personal power, he initiated a wide crackdown on the press. Turkey has jailed more journalists in the past two years than any other country.

Donald Trump’s war against the free press is often compared to the methods of Hitler, Mussolini, and other dictatorial rulers. But I think these comparisons are misleading. The Republican Party in no way resembles the monolithic parties which violently suppressed opponents. Trump’s administration does not have the broad powers to deploy force against the press. Closing newspapers or arresting journalists would cause a constitutional crisis in the US.

Instead Trump has used another model for reducing the ability of our free press to describe and criticize his government. First, he has spread distrust of the mainstream media, so that their reporting about his words and his administrative actions is not believed by his supporters. He goads those who attend his rallies to shout “CNN sucks”, calls journalists “horrendous people”, and lately uses the phrase “enemy of the people” to describe the mainstream media in general. Attacks on the major national news outlets are part of nearly every speech he gives.

Trump did not initiate conservative attacks on mainstream news reporting. The objective reporting of news was Sarah Palin’s primary political target in the 2008 campaign and afterwards, but she was following an already conventional conservative complaint about media bias against the right. In 2014, before Trump began his campaign, Pew surveys showed that “consistent conservatives” distrusted the major national newspapers, NYTimes, Washington Post and USA Today, and the national TV news organizations, except FOX.

Second, Trump supplements attacks on responsible media with unprecedented support for the irresponsible reporting of pretend journalists. Again, the far right media establishment predates Trump. Already in 1995, FAIR reported on a “right-wing media machine” based on personal attacks, fabricated stories, and thinly disguised white supremacy. But Trump gives respectability to what used to be a lunatic media fringe. His anti-free-press model uses existing right-wing media organizations to circulate the “news” he likes.

Alex Jones disseminates made-up conspiracies on his website Infowars, designed to create distrust of our government: that the mass murders at Sandy Hook, the Boston Marathon, and Oklahoma City were government hoaxes perpetrated. Trump appeared on his program as a presidential candidate, praised him as “amazing”, and repeated many of his wild and untrue ideas. The White House granted Infowars official press credentials in 2017.

Trump’s promotion of Steve Bannon, the director of Breitbart News, to be his campaign director and then special advisor in the White House, put the leading voice of alt-right disinformation at the center of his administration.

Recent polling shows that more than two-thirds of Republicans think traditional major news sources make “fake, false, or purposely misleading” reports “a lot”. That is true for only 42% of independents and 22% of Democrats. Most Republicans think the NYTimes (74%) and the Washington Post (65%) are biased, but only 19% distrust Breitbart.

Trump’s model is designed to subvert democracy from within without violence. Responsible news sources will continue to report Trump’s constant lying and his political failures, while Trump will continue to call these reports “fake news”. Unless FOX decides to start reporting in a “fair and balanced” manner, conservative voters will continue to prefer the fantasyland of right-wing media to the real world of factual journalism.

Steve Hochstadt
Springbrook WI
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, August 7, 2018

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Sports, Sportsmanship and Life


A TV commercial I’ve seen too many times says that sports are more than a game. That was certainly true for the soccer World Cup just played in Russia. Enormous crowds at home in every country watched each game as if national survival depended on victory. Hundreds of thousands of French people crowded the streets of Paris when their team won. It’s hard not to connect national pride with athletic triumph. If the US had a team in Russia, I would have rooted from them over everyone else.

The physical skills of individual players and the intuitive coordination of team play were spectacular to watch. But I was disappointed in an important aspect of these matches. Fighting for control of the ball always involved pushing, grabbing arms and pulling on jerseys, all strictly forbidden by the rules. Everybody appeared to consider this behavior a normal part of the game. Feigning innocence and surprise when they were caught in flagrante delicto was even more blatant than the “who me?” gestures of NBA players called for fouls.

Winning was more important than sportsmanship.

I just spent a weekend in Chicago watching a different sport at a high level with a different sense of fair play. My son’s team was playing in the USA Ultimate Frisbee National Masters Championships, for men over 33 and women over 30. Ultimate is a lot like soccer – playing on a soccer-sized field, passing the disk from one player to another trying to get it into the end zone.

But the spirit of the game is entirely different. Even at these national championships, there were no referees. Players were expected to make their own calls for the slightest infraction of the strict rules against physical contact. Disagreements had to be settled by mutual consent on the field, sometimes with the help of neutral official “observers”, mostly by discussion among the players.

The whole atmosphere of competition was based on mutual respect. Players congratulated the other team on good plays and helped each other up from the ground. After the game, the usual congratulatory line-up of the teams was just the beginning of acknowledgment of opponents. The two teams formed a circle with their arms around each other and presented gifts, usually cans of beer, to athletes on the other side, often selected for their fair play and good spirit.

These were serious competitors. Teams of 15 or 20, which had made it through two levels of regional play, traveled from all over the US for three days of competition.

The dominant sense of fair play and mutual respect is maintained by constant reference to the “spirit of the game”, as in these quotations from the “Official Rules of Ultimate”: “Ultimate relies upon a spirit of sportsmanship that places the responsibility for fair play on the player. Highly competitive play is encouraged, but never at the expense of mutual respect among competitors, adherence to the agreed upon rules, or the basic joy of play.” I watched many games over the weekend, and the number of infractions against this form of sportsmanship was minimal.

The words about the spirit of the game (SOTG) on the website of USA Ultimate are a primer about good behavior more generally: “Treat others as you would want to be treated”; “Be generous with praise”; “Go hard. Play fair. Have fun.” “SOTG is about how you handle yourself under pressure: how you contain your emotionality, tame your temper, and modulate your voice.”

Ultimate frisbee developed as a popular sport in the heady days of youthful rebellion against all forms of convention and authority during the late 1960s. The insistence on sportsmanship without referees was natural to teenagers who disdained what they felt was the heavy hand of the older generation. Yet the determination of ultimate players to prevent their ideals from being distorted by conventional sports culture is remarkable.

Not only has the spirit remained in force for half a century, but ultimate players have fought against the typical gender stereotyping of sports culture. Gender mixing and equality has been taken naturally from the start: like all frisbee tournaments, these Masters Nationals invited men’s, women’s and mixed teams on an equal basis. The players’ organization, USA Ultimate, recognized the bias towards men’s athletics that permeates sports around the world and has determined to counteract it. The players’ organization endorsed “gender equity” in 2008, as a reaction to outside media broadcasters, who preferred to display only men’s games. Knowing that they could not control the broadcast content of third-party media companies, USA Ultimate decided on a policy of encouragement and persuasion. The media companies, including ESPN, are now broadcasting men’s and women’s games equally at the college and club levels. USA Ultimate has instituted programs to specifically encourage more girls and women to play and form teams, since there are still more than twice as many males as females who are members.

By staying true to their countercultural roots, ultimate players have discovered that hard competition does not automatically mean animosity and cheating: “Time and again, great teams and star players have shown that you can bring all your competitive and athletic zeal to a game without sacrificing fair play or respect for your opponent.”

Given the constant lamentations about the end of civility and an epidemic of bad manners in modern life, ultimate’s SOTG might offer a better path. Some sports are more than just games.

Steve Hochstadt
Springbrook, WI
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, July 31, 2018