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George Hostetter: Making sense of things in a democracy is hard work

‘George Hostetter Day’ proclaimed in Fresno to honor longtime reporter

Retiring reporter George Hostetter was honored Thursday, Oct. 22, 2015, by the Fresno City Council after 28 years with the Fresno Bee, many of those spent covering City Hall.
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Retiring reporter George Hostetter was honored Thursday, Oct. 22, 2015, by the Fresno City Council after 28 years with the Fresno Bee, many of those spent covering City Hall.

Fresno State’s Lobby Corps invited me to its Oct. 13 meeting.

I had no idea what I was getting into. After it was all over, I wasn’t real sure what had happened.

No matter. I thoroughly enjoyed myself. Thank you, Fresno State Lobby Corps students.

Near as I could tell, Lobby Corps is somehow connected to Associated Students Inc. (ASI), Fresno State’s student government. An ASI news release from August described Lobby Corps as composed of students “with interests in lobbying at the local, state and federal level.” Lobby Corps members “focus on advocating for issues affecting higher education and the college experience.”

I walked into Room 308 of the Student Union at the appointed hour of 5 p.m. Four students sat at the conference table. Three were with Lobby Corps. The fourth was a guest.

Kait Sims, ASI’s vice president of external affairs, chaired the hour-long meeting. I was the agenda’s topic for the first 30 minutes.

My task was simple: Discuss government. That was easy. This is America. We are the government. What unfolded was a conversation, not a lecture.

Toward the end I asked everyone what they were reading, both in class and for pleasure. I figured the latter would hint at their worldview. I’m nosy. I wanted to know what makes them tick.

Take it from me, these students are reading some heavy-duty stuff. I wouldn’t survive in today’s college world.

Ms. Sims didn’t let me off the hook.

“What do you recommend?” she said.

Fair question. I’ve got a Medicare card in my wallet. My years and reading habits have given me a worldview, a foundation on which to judge things.

I made four recommendations.

First, “Democracy in America” by Alexis de Tocqueville.

We all know about this nearly 200-year-old masterpiece on the “new science” of democratic politics from the point of view of a French aristocrat.

Here’s Tocqueville in the section titled “On The Power That The Majority In America Exercises Over Thought:”

“Thought is an invisible and almost intangible power that makes sport of all tyrannies. In our day the most absolute sovereigns of Europe cannot prevent certain thoughts hostile to their authority from mutely circulating in their states and even in the heart of their courts. It is not the same in America: as long as the majority is doubtful, one speaks; but when it has irrevocably pronounced, everyone becomes silent and friends and enemies alike then seem to hitch themselves together to its wagon. The reason for this is simple: there is no monarch so absolute that he can gather in his hands all the strength of society and defeat resistance, as can a majority vested with the right to make the laws and execute them.”

Second, “White House Years” by Henry Kissinger.

What an amazing tale of diplomacy. Everything is connected. Nothing is as it seems. Human emotion never fades. The stakes are always high.

Here is Kissinger summing up the Nixon White House’s geopolitical moves in the weeks before the Moscow Summit of 1972:

“Conscious of its own vulnerabilities, the Kremlin therefore cut loose from its obstreperous small ally on the other side of the globe. By proceeding with the summit, Moscow helped neutralize our domestic opposition, which gave us freedom of action to break the back of North Vietnam’s offensive. Our strategy of detente – posing risks and dangling benefits before the Soviets – made possible an unfettered attempt to bring our involvement in the Vietnam war to an honorable close. Nixon could leave for Moscow with dignity, for we had not sacrificed those who had put their trust in us; with confidence, since the interlocking design of our foreign policy had withstood extraordinary stress; and with hope that we were laying the foundations of a global equilibrium which could bring safety and progress to an anxious thermonuclear world.”

Third, the short stories of John O’Hara.

A former newspaper reporter who died in 1970, O’Hara was a master at compression. He often told the story largely through dialogue.

“The Victim,” published in 1964 in “The Saturday Evening Post,” is one of my favorites.

A man name Kanzler, a pharmacist in Gibbsville, Penn., is walking home on a Saturday night. He’s got the drug store’s receipts in his pocket. He is robbed by a masked man on foot.

A cop shows up at Kanzler’s home. We soon learn that 1) the robber had quietly studied Kanzler’s daily habits; 2) the robber earlier that night had hit a restaurant in a way that suggests he had studied the restaurant owner’s habits; 3) the robber at that very minute was robbing an Armory/dance hall ticket booth in a way that suggests he had studied the dance hall’s operations.

The robber was a scientist of sorts. His amazing knack for rational thought was upsetting Gibbsville’s social order, and no one seemed capable of stopping him. It’s a Darwinian world, and this robber had the best cerebral cortex of all.

Then the cop while at Kanzler’s home gets a phone call from the station house. The cop returns to the living room to tell Kanzler the news.

The third robbery, the one at the dance hall, had suddenly gone south.

The stick-up man, the cop says, “went out there to the Armory, and Ted Haggerty, he runs the dances, he was in the booth where they sell the tickets from. The ticket window was down, and he was getting the money ready to pay the orchestra. Knock on the door, and I guess he thought it was the fellow from the orchestra. He let him in, but it was the fellow with the gun. But this time he wasn’t so smart. They always figure it out wrong. He told Haggerty to put the money in the satchel, and that was the last thing he ever said. One, two, three, four. Old Charley Paxton (a hard-drinking cop) was sitting there in the booth, half asleep most likely. And he just took out his gun and he fired four straight shots and hit the guy with every one of them. Old Charley Paxton, getting ready to be retired. You sure have to hand it to him. Just quietly pulled out his .38 and one, two, three, four. Guy was dead before he hit the floor. Three in the body and one in the head.”

Fourth, “Seeing Like A State” by James C. Scott.

It’s odd, but no one ever talks about the State. We often talk about the “state” as in the state of California or the state of Arizona, an administrative unit. But we don’t often talk about the State, as in the centralized political authority with a monopoly on the legitimate use of coercion (or deadly force).

Scott, a Yale professor, discusses the State and how it “sees.”

What a wonderful book. The State above all else wants to perpetuate itself. The State encompasses a lot of people. The people, acting together, can very easily topple the State and start a new one.

So, the State has to “see” what it’s dealing with, and must see these things clearly. If things aren’t clear, then the State, using its immense power, must impose clarity. For the benefit of the maximum number of people, of course.

Scott calls this need, this passion, this compulsion, “legibility.” He describes all sorts of examples, from scientific forestry in 18th century Prussia and slum clearance in 19th century Paris to the 20th century’s collectivized agriculture and the high-modernist city of Le Corbusier and allies.

The modern world is a riot of State efforts at legibility, Scott says

The book’s subtitle is “How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed.” There you have Scott’s sentiments.

I give you two paragraphs from Scott.

No. 1:

“An illegible society, then is a hindrance to any effective intervention by the state, whether the purpose of that intervention is plunder or public welfare. As long as the state’s interest is largely confined to grabbing a few tons of grain or rounding up a few conscripts, the state’s ignorance may not be fatal. When, however, the state’s objective requires changing the daily habits (hygiene or health practices) or work performance (quality labor or machine maintenance) of its citizens, such ignorance can well be disabling. A thoroughly legible society eliminates local monopolies of information and creates a kind of national transparency through the uniformity of codes, identities, statistics, regulations, and measures. At the same time it is likely to create new positional advantages for those at the apex who have the knowledge and access to easily decipher the new state-created format.”

No. 2:

“Legibility implies a viewer whose place is central and whose vision is synoptic. State simplifications of the kind we have examined are designed to provide authorities with a schematic view of their society, a view not afforded to those without authority. Rather like U.S. highway patrolmen wearing mirrored sunglasses, the authorities enjoy a quasi-monopolistic picture of selected aspects of the whole society. This privileged vantage point is typical of all institutional settings where command and control of complex human activities is paramount. The monastery, the barracks, the factory floor, and the administrative bureaucracy (private or public) exercise many statelike functions and often mimic its information structure as well.”

I am retiring from The Bee on Friday. I didn’t tell the Lobby Corps this, but these four books sum up how I came to view my job as a newspaper reporter. They influenced my take on the world of journalism.

At Fresno City Hall, I’ve seen Tocqueville’s majority in action. I’m not saying the unbridled power of the majority in a democracy is wrong. I’m just saying that I don’t see how a reporter could do justice to the City Hall story without Tocqueville as a partner.

I’ve seen the arts of Kissinger-esque diplomacy in action. Some might call it deceit or hypocrisy or double-dealing or insincerity. I’m not saying this judgment is wrong. I’m just saying it helps to have Kissinger rattling around in a City Hall reporter’s head.

I’ve never seen physical violence at City Hall. But I’ve seen plenty of dreams, born in the most rational minds in all of of America, suddenly go belly up to the utter surprise of everyone. Metaphorically speaking, O’Hara’s “one, two, three, four … three in the body and one in the head” tells a City Hall reporter what to expect from most politicians’ promises.

And finally, there is Professor Scott’s “seeing like a state.” I wish Mayor Ashley Swearengin the very best. She has served Fresno well. I’m sure she will do a great job in her final 14 months in office. But everything she is doing is about creating “legibility” on the landscape that is the city of Fresno. Woe to a City Hall reporter who hasn’t read Professor Scott.

My half-hour with Lobby Corps, like my career at The Bee, was up. Ms. Sims and I concluded things with a brief conversation.

Ms. Sims: “Please accept this water bottle as a token of our appreciation.”

Me: “Does it hold tea?”

Ms. Sims: “Better not be hot.”

Me: “Thank you. Goodbye.”

George Hostetter: 559-441-6272, @GeorgeHostetter

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