Thursday, April 13, 2017

The View From the Other Side of the Street

I walk a lot. I tend to take the same mindless route, because mindlessness is part of the attraction, letting my thoughts wander who-know-where. Usually they find their way to something I'm writing. Sometimes to DT. Too much DT lately, honestly. Not healthy. Bigly.

But I digress, in a wandering kind of way. What I want to say is that once in a while I walk on the other side of the street. When I do, it’s almost like taking a different route. I don’t do it if I don’t want to engage with my environment, to be taken out of mindlessness, because inevitably what happens is I begin to notice things I’ve haven't before.

The charming second-floor patio on a house on the side where I usually walk, set back too far to see from up close. The broad sweep of an oak tree that I usually am aware of primarily because it buckles the sidewalk where I walk too tightly under it to appreciate its sprawling beauty.

It makes me wonder what else I’m missing for being too close to what I’m used to seeing.

I don’t want to belabor the now clichéd point about being in a political bubble. I am. I took Fox News out of my curated news feed. Too aggravating. 

But that’s a different kind of missing. One I’m aware of. One I do on purpose. Every once in a while I visit the other side of the political spectrum, whether by reading or by having my favorite brilliant conservative friend over for dinner and light combat. I know what’s on the other side of that street. I don’t need to be reminded every day.

But this other missing, the one I am not aware of (because, as another cliché goes, we don’t know what we don’t know), is more interesting. What if I could walk not just on the other side of the street, but on the other side of the state, which, in the case of California, would be walking down the central valley. This is our breadbasket, the nation’s breadbasket. During the drought, the farmers were worried about water. They still are, but now they are also worried about who will pick their crops, since most of the field workers are undocumented immigrants.

Or what if I could walk through Kansas? Not drive through those golden wheat fields, as I have many times, but walk, stopping at homes and churches. What are they thinking there? Why are they so worried about their kids learning evolution and attending gay marriages? 

Honestly, these days I think I understand the concerns the Brits who wanted Brexit and the French who are disillusioned with Hollande better than I understand the growing fever of isolationism in America. The Middle-Eastern immigrant surge is huge and up-close and personal in Europe. Not here, though. I don’t think there are any Mexican jihadists, unless you count as terrorists the ones who participate in a-day-without-immigrants boycotts.

Why are Texans and North Carolinians so worried about voter fraud? Are they really? The people, that is, as opposed to the politicians who don’t get votes from the poor.

Do the coal miners in Kentucky really think their jobs are coming back? What if the jobs don't return? What do the people who used to do that work need to survive? How can we help them? Not sell them a fantasy, but actually help them. What do they say? Would they like us to help them pack up and move? No point in sticking around and starving, but moving money is tough to come by. And where would they like to go? Do they have family anywhere? Is there some place they’ve always thought they might like to try, some place where there are jobs. Not mining jobs, but decent ones.

What we have now is an intellectual dual between warring political classes. Bernie Sanders has his solutions. Never mind that few of them have a snowball’s chance in hell of getting through Congress, not just this hopelessly screwed up one but any since the New Deal and (almost) The Great Society.

Paul Ryan has his plans. He read them in a book. He’s a policy guy, he likes to tell us. But his economic plans are like Barry Goldwater’s suggestion that we use low-yield nuclear weapons to clear out the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

You can’t see the human cost from the air.

And you can’t keep walking down the same side of the street and expect the view to change. Or expect to learn anything new. 

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

The Petri Dish of my Life

I'm sitting on my back porch as I write this. A soft breeze carries the sweet smell of jasmine. The only sound is the chirping of a bird who is excited about something, probably spring. The rest of the world might not even exist.

Not the desolation in Syria, nor the starvation in Yemen. Not the migrants huddled against border fences. Not the refugees clinging to the remains of a boat in the Mediterranean. Not the jobless husband and wife in Appalachia wondering how they will feed their children. Not the cancer patient wondering how she will survive if she can no longer get heath insurance.

There are two worlds: Mine. The rest. 

My world is safe and privileged. Much of the rest is not. I am not rich, but I am well enough off. I was born into a family that was not rich, but it was also well enough off. I went to good schools. My kids went to good schools. My family is like an organism in a petri dish rich in nutrients.

If I had been born in Syria as it is today, what would I have been like? Or paid a coyote to smuggle me across a border? Or climbed into a boat to strike out for safety? Some from those harsh conditions do well; we all know those stories, those triumphs against staggering odds. Most do not.

Success is an accident of birth. I see that now. I didn’t want to believe it. Who does? If you prosper, it implies that you are not as talented as you thought; if you do not, it suggests you never had, or will have, a chance.

So we cling to the myth of individual self-reliance. Mainly, I also see now, it is merely an excuse to look away from the hardships of others. To turn our backs on them.

Most of us would not step over a man bleeding in the street and walk on. Most of us would not ignore a crying child sitting alone on a street corner. We have hearts. We have empathy. But when the suffering is not right before us, we have worked out with our consciences a rationalization that permits us to ignore it. 

The poor should use the money that they spend on cell phones for health care instead. They shouldn’t be buying potato chips with food stamps. If they really wanted to work they could find  jobs; they’re just lazy. These are the kinds of things we, even the best of us, sometimes tell ourselves.

That’s not the way it is, though. That’s not the truth. And deep down, we know it.

I’m drinking tea with cookies and cutting roses for the dinner table because of where and to whom I was born. I have no moral superiority. I have no claim to greater virtue. I was just lucky.

Does that confer upon me, and all those in government and industry who like me were born into nutrient-rich environments, an obligation to help those who were less fortunate? For instance, by making sure that at least in our rich country no one is denied decent health care? 

The question, when asked honestly, answers itself.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

And he Shall Lead him out of the Wilderness

Jared Kushner is an orthodox Jew. His father in law is a narcissistic opportunist who wants, like all narcissists, to be adored. By all accounts, Kushner is a moderate. Trump is whatever you want him to be, or more accurately, whatever he needs to be to get elected. In the election, and since, he tacked right, because the left and much of the middle was already taken. Now, the right has abandoned him. Where will he go from here?

Enter Jared. I don’t know much about Kushner beyond what I read casually. He may not be a rocket scientist, but he’s obviously bright enough. He’s ambitious. He’s steadily increasing his influence in the West Wing. Steve Bannon apparently is beginning to be jealous of/hate him. That alone is a good enough recommendation for me.

Trump wants wins. He wants to be on the scoreboard. He wants the crowd to cheer. I don’t think it’s important to him what policy they are cheering for as long as they are cheering him as the one who carried it over the finish line. 

He campaigned on health care for all and turned the job of offensive coordinator over to Paul Ryan, while he went up to the luxury box and schmoozed. Ryan called all the wrong plays. The Trump team lost the game. Trump hates being seen as a loser. And what’s more, the Freedom Caucus told him no. Not just no, hell no. I don’t think he likes being told no. He’s not used to it. Apparently not even women he wants to grope tell him no.

All the Jews I know are concerned about the health and safety of their fellow man. Most of them, anyway. So, that’s a point in Jared’s favor. Like his father in law, I think he’s vain and doesn’t like to lose. I am quite certain he would be thrilled to be the one to pull the right-wing thorn out of his father-in-law’s paw.

Right now Trump is lost in the desert. But Jared has been out prospecting. He has seen a few oases, each jealously guarded by ancient Democrat tribes. Because of the desert’s relentless harshness, these tribes have learned to co-exist. There is the Oasis of Bernie Sanders, the Oasis of Chuck Schumer, which is very near Nancy Pelosi’s posh digs. Together, these tribes are strong, but they are demanding. The will give you water, but you have to give them something in return.

There are other tribes scattered around. They used to be called Republicans, but they have become fragmented and suspicious of one another. They no longer trust one another. Paul Ryan was just reminded of that. They have water, but they crave power. Trump has power, but no water.

The trick for Jared is to barter for water with the Democrats and promise power to the Republicans. He could, in that way, assemble a horde worthy of the name. One able to command the legislature and shepherd good ideas, or even moderately decent ones, into law.

Then bring in Pop for the photo op.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Bring on Your Wrecking Ball

Bruce Springsteen predicted Trump would be president four years before it happened. Listen to Bruce’s 2012 grammy winning album “Wrecking Ball” and see if you don't agree. I’m a big Springsteen fan, but somehow I missed “Wrecking Ball” when it came out. The title song popped up on an Apple Music radio stream recently, and I was hooked.

The album is about the ruin wrought by, among others, the fat-cats of the financial crisis. The lives they ruined. The people out of work, desperate but proud. There are gospel influences. We shall overcome. But what grabbed me amidst all that desperation was this voice, rising loud and strong:

“Come on and take your best shot, let me see what you've got, bring on your wrecking ball.”

We’re not pitiful. We’re not long-suffering We’re not waiting for our reward in some promised land. We’re pissed off.

“Hold tight to your anger, and don't fall to your fears.”

That was the mood in the heartland in 2012. Bruce knew it. Why didn’t we?

Slave spirituals, Woody Guthrie’s hard-times songs of the Depression, Pete Seeger’s anthems of the working man. Music that comes from the ground up tells us what people are feeling. We only need listen to know.

In 2012 people were hurting, and they were mad as hell. Bruce told us.

What did we do? And by we, I mean Democrats and progressives. Well, we tried to give them the security of health care. We did okay on that, considering the Republican opposition, but now that’s about to be undone. Why? Because the people we were trying to help weren’t the ones who were so angry. 

We tried to help the poor, the sick and the aged. This is what Democrats do. We’re regular bleeding hearts. I don’t say that derisively. We mean well. And certainly those people needed help with health care. It was a noble cause.

But it did not speak to the anger that Bruce sang to us. The fat cats were getting richer, and people had no jobs. That anger.

So along comes Trump and tells the angry folks what they want to hear: You've been screwed by the elite who have sent your jobs to China. You have every right to be pissed. They didn’t put you first. They put themselves first. I’ll bring back your jobs. I’ll put you first.

Pause here for the irony. He’s not putting anyone but himself first. He’s not bringing back any jobs. All he’s going to do is undo the one good thing that anyone has done for them in years: given health care to the needy.

“Hold tight to your anger, and don’t fall to your fears.”

That was his anthem. His voters marched to it. Honestly, when was the last time a policy white-paper stirred your blood? Trump gave them simple answers to complex questions. He honored their anger. He lit their torches. He said the monster lives there, burn down her house.

And they did.

Listen to Bruce, people. Stop overthinking this. Get down on the level of that despair and that anger and confront it. Deal with it head on.

And then, in the 2018 mid-terms, make the refrain our own. Show what we’ve got. We’re committed to making our home better for all of us. We aren't afraid of nihilists. We aren't afraid of those who would tear down civil society. We aren’t going to give in to our fear of bigotry, xenophobia and ignorance.

“Come on and take your best shot, let me see what you've got, bring on your wrecking ball.” 

Wednesday, March 8, 2017


How many times have you heard someone say, “This is unacceptable”?

Parents say it to their children: “That is unacceptable, young man.”

Politicians say it to the public: Kids killed in school: “Unacceptable.” Obamacare: “Unacceptable.”

If the thing that is unacceptable involves spending public funds, like Obamacare, it may also be in a “death spiral.”

I’ve told my kids plenty of times something they were doing was unacceptable. I haven’t tried death spiral, unless that was what they heard when I added, “One more time and you’re grounded. For life.”

When a parent tells a child something is unacceptable, the child knows what he is supposed to do (eg, stop yelling, hitting his sister, peeing in the wading pool). When a politician announces that something is unacceptable, he almost never suggests what might be done to produce a different result.

Schoolyard killings are unacceptable. But gun control? Well, not so fast.

The fight over Obamacare has highlighted the idiocy of this ceremonial breast-beating. For five years and over fifty votes Republicans have screamed that Obamacare is unacceptable. Now they are struggling to come up with a workable alternative. So far, no one likes their plan. In fact, more people like Obamacare.

Calling something unacceptable is not a solution. Yet many politicians seem to think that if they just say that they are off the hook. “Hey, I’ve condemned it, what more do you want?”

Well, what we want are solutions.

What is wrong is often easy to spot. Republicans are good at that. So was Bernie Sanders. But he didn’t have a practical way to make his utopian dreams come true, and Republicans don’t have a viable health care alternative.

Condemnations and false promises, from left or right, are not leadership. Leadership is concrete plans. “If we do this, this is the benefit we will get. And here’s the research to back it up.”

Research. Remember that? We don’t do that much anymore. The Republican leadership is pushing their Obamacare alternative without any determination by the Congressional Budget Office, or anyone else, about what their plan would do to enrollments and costs.

You can tell a toddler something is unacceptable and expect him to stop. When a child gets older, though, and her behavior and its consequences become more complex, she may not know how to change. The choices are no longer binary: stop/don’t stop. They are nuanced, and the outcomes are not certain.

In that situation, a parent does her best to come up with advice that is practical. Our politicians need to do the same. Otherwise, they are treating us like toddlers.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Will Trump Surrender Power?

Washington DC, January, 2021:

Donald Trump has lost the presidency, but refuses to concede. The election was rigged, he maintains. He was the victor, as the investigation he has ordered will confirm. In the meantime, he will not surrender the presidency. To do so would be undemocratic, he says. It would thwart the true will of the people.

His administration has not cooperated with the transition team of the president-elect. In a hastily brought lawsuit, the Supreme Court is considering the matter, but Trump says this is not the Court’s decision to make. It is the people’s decision. And the people have re-elected him, as his investigation will show. In the meantime, there will be no transfer of power.

He has ordered the military to cordon off Washington. As a precaution, he says, to prevent agitators and terrorists from trying to thwart democracy. The White House is surrounded by tanks, guns pointed out toward the sparse clumps of people who have dared to gather. Some carry placards denouncing Trump. News video, taken clandestinely, shows protesters being hauled away by uniformed men.

Couldn’t happen, you say.

Are you sure?

This is the man who said he might not accept the election results in 2016 if they didn’t go his way. The man who is signing executive orders to wall us in and to deport those he doesn’t think belong here. The man withdrawing support for reproductive health care for women around the world, threatening to withdraw support for our allies in NATO, openly admiring a ruthless autocrat. The man who brazenly claims to have won the 2016 popular vote because there were millions of illegal votes, who tried to pressure the Park Service into supporting his patently absurd claims about crowd size at his inauguration, who sends his senior counsellor out to meet allegations of lies with “alternative facts.” This is the man who's chief strategist thinks the media is the opposition and that it should "keep its mouth shut."

Is he delusional? Or is he just a coldly calculating tyrant? Does it matter? 

When we consider how fast and ruthlessly he is acting now, can we even imagine the scope of his power, and the threat it will pose, after four years?

What can we do?

First: acknowledge that the threat is real. This is not politics as usual. Our democracy and the rights of all citizens are in jeopardy.

Second: resist. Now. Not later, when it may be too late. Resist every single step he takes toward making himself a dictator. Call him out. March against his usurpation of power, his perversion of rational thought, his lurid appeals to fear and anger.
Don’t stand by and watch it happen. As citizens of the world’s greatest and most enduring democracy, this our crisis, our problem, not someone else’s. Get involved. Go into the meeting halls and streets of America and raise your voice for what you know is right about the way we should treat one another: with deference, with respect, and with optimism.

Risk your comfort and tranquility.

Or risk your freedom.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Our Real-Life Actual Fairy Godmother

By the time we moved to town, Pat Briggs had been running the Palo Alto Children’s Theatre for 45 years. Our son Nicholas was bitten by the theater bug when he was four. He was ten when we arrived at our new California home. He’d been in a summer theatre workshop the year before, and when we bought our house, the fact that the storied Palo Alto Children’s Theater was just down the street was a big selling point.

Pat Briggs at her retirement tribute.
Nick tried out for a play not two months after we arrived. Hundreds of kids were at the auditions for “Alice in Wonderland.” Pat and her Assistant Director, Micheal Litfin, a man of comparatively short tenure, only 25 years, ran the auditions the way Mussolini would have if he had been both autocratic and loved children. Pat held court, clipboard in her lap, from a seat in a middle row of the theatre, while Michael, dressed as he almost always was in a yellow cardigan sweater, ran the Dickensian horde through their paces. All children, ages 8-18. No adults allowed in Pat’s and Michael’s productions.

Gulp! This was the big time.

“Remember, there will be other plays if you don’t make this one,” we told Nick.

Mirable dictu, he got a part. He was the King of Hearts. Don’t remember that role? It was big, I assure you. Huge! He snagged it by improvising his now legendary stutter-step as he moved about the stage trying to keep his head.

So began a fabulous five years. Nick was in play after play. Little roles, big roles. Pat and Michael spread the wealth. The kids did it all. Acted, designed and built sets, handled tech. In addition to Pat and Michael there was tech guy to make sure no one cut off a finger sawing a prop, a costume virtuoso, a ticket seller jack-of-all-trades, and hundreds of parent volunteers selling brownies at intermissions and manning the barbecue grill for summer hot-dog theatre shows on the outdoor stage of the Magic Castle, which had been built through the efforts of the Friends of the Children's Theatre, a kind of private fundraising militia that Pat controlled in her casually tyrannical way.

The theatre was built with money from a contribution in 1932 by Lucie Stern. The city paid most of the operating bills of the theatre. Money raised by the Friends let Pat do things like improve the sound system when the city said it could not afford to do more. My wife and I were part of the Friends posse. Everyone was. Pat never said it would be a good idea, if you wanted to see your child in a show, but it seemed like a good idea.

We had a lot of fun. We went to a lot of shows. We waited up late for Nick to get home from rehearsals a lot of nights. We worried about when he would do his homework from school. But there was never any doubt that he was having the time of his life. He did plays, he did “Second-Saturday” shows, entirely directed by him and his fellow players for young children, he interviewed survivors of Nazi Germany for an original play to be written by him and his friends with the guidance of Michael Litfin, who himself had written dozens of the plays produced at the theatre.

It was an unbelievably rich time: rich in creativity, talent, comradeship, empathy and the joy of starting from nothing and putting on a dazzling show.

Just as Nick was making a transition from semi-full-time actor to semi-full-time robotics team programmer, Pat retired after 50 years and Michael died suddenly. He was only 62. One of the last things he said, speaking of his life, was: “It was a great run.”

No one could have said it better.

Pat is not well now. She has moved to Chicago, where one of her nieces lives. I just went by her California house, which is near mine, in the hope of catching her other niece from Colorado, who is in town to help deal with Pat’s accumulations of a lifetime. Like any theatre person worth her salt, Pat was a bit of a hoarder. You never knew when you might need those Valkyrie wings for another production. There are scripts and scrapbooks and memorabilia, awards by the dozen. It’s easy to see in the clutter the benevolent and indulgent temperament that made her so patient and effective with children, that enabled her to guide them in a way that ultimately let them guide themselves.

I did meet her niece, a lovely woman. I told her who I was and asked for Pat’s address so I could write to her in Chicago. I told her that Pat had touched countless lives, including those of our family. I told her we would never forget her.

All writers hope that their words will endure beyond their pitifully short time on this earth. A book can be taken off the shelf and enjoyed decades or centuries later. It’s a form of immortality.

Pat Briggs has left her theatre family, the children and families of fifty years of plays, a dozen a year, year after year, her own special kind of immortality. She will live on in thousands of young hearts as long as memories are revisited around dinner tables and in quiet moments of reflection about what she and Michael taught us about stories, and about ourselves.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Goodbye, and Good Luck

I am as mortified by the notion that Donald Trump will be president as the KKK was by a black man in the oval office. How the hell did that happen? we both asked. I don’t plan to hang Trump in effigy, or burn a cross in front of the Trump Tower, but I understand how white supremacists felt. This can’t be my country.

During my lifetime, the arc of the moral universe in this country has, as MLK predicted, bent toward justice. We have steadily improved living and working conditions, steadily expanded voting rights and civil rights, steadily opened the doors of equality to women.

Now we have lurched into a major correction. A bleak recession may follow, one in which hard-won civil liberties and economic opportunity may be pushed back toward where they were before I was born.

It wasn’t supposed to happen like this. I never imagined we would take giant leaps backward. Sideways, sure, little half-steps to the rear now and then, but not this. This is wrong. And, frankly, it’s frightening.

I know the theories of why Trump was elected. I understand the plight of the unemployed in the rust belt, the shrinking economic circumstances and self-respect of the white men who used to rule the roost, the fear of immigrants hijacking our jobs and our culture, the fear of women being liberated from their male masters. I just didn’t think there were that many people who felt those things. However understandable, they are bitter and unworthy feelings.

I have always believed in the wisdom of the common man, something I would call common-sense decency. Decency has taken a back seat to something ugly, though. Several ugly things, actually: racism; misogyny; tribalism of the kind that fosters genocides.

I don’t want any part of what’s going on in much of the country now. Love it or leave it, my old Southern redneck friends would say. They had it on their bumper stickers. They had it on their gun racks. Maybe that should have been a warning to me.

I’m not going to leave the country. We have been occupied by a foreign enemy. I will be part of the resistance.

I’m not yet sure what form my resistance will take. Lately, there are days when I’m sorry that I, in a moment of Lennonesque idealism, had my old shotgun melted down.

I do know this is serious, though. This is a categorically different menace than we have faced in my lifetime. We must resist. Our way of life is at stake.

See you at the barricades. For now: Goodbye, and good luck.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

For Whom the Bell Tolls

“What am I going to do with a horse?” Anselmo says.

His comrades in arms are trying to get him up the hill to a horse that could take him to safety. He knows he’s too badly wounded. He will surely die, and he would only slow them down as they retreat. They leave him a bottle of whiskey and a gun. He promises to kill the enemy, but we and he know the last bullet will be for him.

So it goes in war. Some make it, some don’t.

We are in a new kind of war now, one no less devastating than the epic battles of the Spanish Civil War of which Hemingway wrote and the world wars of that century. Ours is an economic war that here in the US will leave many to die in the pocked landscapes of abandoned coal mines and rusting assembly lines. Elsewhere, it will leave many more to die in the steaming jungles of Africa and the harsh deserts of the Middle East. The idled coal miners and factory workers will die of despair. Around the world, millions dispossessed by global warming and nationalistic strife will die of hunger and thirst, and worse.

But take heart: to paraphrase Martin Luther King, the arc of economic development is long, but it bends toward prosperity.

On the whole, the world is better off today than it has ever been. There is great economic inequality, but the lowest on the ladder have better lives than those before them. The economic wild kingdom is not fair, but it favors survival of the species. Predators kill and others feed off the leftovers. From an economic standpoint, there is more killing and more leftovers than ever.

We no longer live in Feudal times, though. We have awakened to our humanity, and our inhumanity. Survival of the fittest is no longer a sufficient guiding principle. We want to take care of those left behind, or at least give them a better chance to make something good out of what they have, even if that doesn’t include stock options.

Full employment has been the way we meant to create opportunity for all in the U.S. As technology advances, though, robots are taking more U.S. jobs than the Chinese. Robots are taking Chinese jobs too. No less an authority than economics Nobel Laureate Angus Deaton said recently that he doesn't think “globalization is anywhere near the threat that robots are.”

Worldwide, free trade has lifted millions from ignorance and paucity. But nationalism gets in the way of free trade from time to time. And trade alone is not enough to help the millions of refugees from Syria and other devastated countries. Trade alone will not topple despots.

We need to start by taking care of business at home. But we need to be sensible about it. Protectionism won’t keep out the robots. The coal mines and the steel mills aren't coming back. And the people who worked them aren’t likely to be retained as software engineers. No matter how prosperous we get, we probably aren’t going to be able to find jobs for those who are rotated out of employment by immutable changes in their industries. We need to help them the old fashioned way: the equivalent of a sandwich at the back door, a place to stay in the garage. We need to give them the money they need to live. They can’t earn it. We might as well face that.

As to the world, there is less we can do. But we must not look away. We must not say to ourselves that their problems are not ours. Even if we didn’t think it was immoral to ignore their suffering, from a practical standpoint it is unwise. They will hate us. They will attack us. They already do. They already are.

How to help them is not clear. We can’t offer them a minimum income, as we can our own citizens. The best we can do, I think, is to engage with their leaders to encourage democratic governance and equal rights. Those conditions are not sufficient for economic opportunity, but they are necessary. We and they will have to rely on human ingenuity and ambition for the rest.

The old model of liberal economics called for the free flow of goods and services in a capitalistic economy to provide the greatest overall prosperity possible. I don’t think we have come up with a better model. But we have begun to realize that there will always be losers in that system. As the distance between us shrinks, both at home and in the world, we can see our neighbors more clearly than ever. We can see the want on their faces. We can see their sorrow and desperation. And we can see that their circumstances are most often not their fault. It has gotten too hard to keep looking the other way.

A bottle of whiskey and a gun may have been what was needed for poor old Anselmo, but we owe more to those among us who have been left wounded and crippled by the very economic system that has made the rest of us wealthy.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Truth, the Brand

When Pinocchio lied, his wooden nose grew longer. He had some ups and downs on the Island of Lost Boys, but got to be a real boy in the end. Charming story. And the source of the Pinocchio award for not telling the truth in politics. Earlier this week, Donald Trump earned four Pinocchios from Glenn Kessler of The Washington Post for falsehoods about unemployment rates. 

I doubt anyone noticed.

Rick Perlstein had a nice piece on Meet The Press last week about the current dysfunction in journalism. Journalists are trained to see and report both sides. In the run-up to the last presidential election, this resulted in an avalanche of what in common parlance has become known as false equivalents. We all know about this. We all have our own opinions about what is false and what is equivalent. I won’t bore you, or try your patience, with mine.

But I will suggest this for your consideration: Truth, the brand, is losing value at an alarming rate. If I were in charge of making money selling truth, I would be panicked. I’d be calling in consultants. I’d be looking for a new marketing strategy. Truth has become dull. No one wants it anymore.

I went to a holiday party recently that was given by a Knight Fellow in Journalism at Stanford. Her home was full of practicing journalists who are serious students of journalism from all over the world. I didn’t talk to them all, but I found a consistent theme that was both inspiring and depressing: The job of journalists is not to take sides. It is to search for the truth in a professional, evenhanded way.

Good luck with that. The other team, Liars Inc., is not shackled by the ethical constraints of professional journalists. The noise they make drowns out the truth. The truth isn’t sexy. It isn’t sensational (not when presented responsibly). It rarely makes you want to turn to your friends or spouse and say, “See, I told you there was something funny going on there.”

Or, if it does, the immediate reply is, “Yeah, that’s what they say, but you know they are in that candidate’s pocket. You can’t trust them.”

Think of the truth as the organic cereal in a plain brown box at the end of the grocery shelf, hardly noticeable among the brightly colored boxes of sugar pops and fruit loops. The organic stuff even tastes like its box. Eating it is a chore. You think its good for you, but it’s no fun. Funny, how that box of flax-seed granola lasts so long in the pantry as the boxes of frosted flakes come and go.

Good journalism is consumed at about the same desultory rate as organic cereal. It’s there, in the same old Gray Lady packaging, but fewer and fewer reach for it.

Good journalism is in danger of becoming irrelevant. It doesn’t have our attention anymore. We’re not all listening to Walter Cronkite on the evening news. We’re reading and watching what we want to. We’re self-selecting, living in our own echo chambers. We’re not hearing the truth. It’s not even clear we want to.

So, if you’re peddling the truth—and let’s face it, even journalists and their editors have to sell their stories or there is no way to keep producing them—you’re in trouble. You’re revenues are shrinking. You can see the day, perhaps not too far off, when you won’t be able to keep speaking.

Let’s be honest: you have to change. Your journalistic standards are no longer enough. Not enough people seem to care about them, or even to trust them. You’re going to have to become guerrilla warriors for truth.

To that end, as a loyal consumer of what you are in the business of producing, I offer these modest suggestions (framed in the context of an election, since that is still seared into our psyches):

Deal with a lie the way you would a libel: Newspapers are legally liable if they repeat a libelous statement. So they are careful to independently confirm the truth of the statement. If they can’t, they don’t print it. This would be a good rule to follow when a candidate makes an outlandish claim.

Call out lies for what they are: Even if you aren’t publishing the lies, someone else will. At that point, it becomes your job to report that the candidate is lying. To ask why. To ask whether he can be trusted.

The assertion isn’t the news: There is a school of thought that the very fact that someone running for office says something is news. The idea is that if the statement is farcical, the candidate will be shown to be unserious and unworthy. But lately, that’s not the way the public is taking things. A disturbingly large percentage of the population wants to believe anything their candidate says. By repeating his (or her) every utterance, the press is not showing him to be a joke, they are giving him a megaphone.

Study the enemy: How do unreliable news sources spread their lies? Study their techniques. Emulate them. Get the balanced truth out there side-by-side with the lies. Don't relegate it to the fusty corners of small circulation newspapers and public radio.

Co-operate with other reliable news sources: Competition makes us great. But in war, we need allies. Election misinformation is war. Share sources and leads. Like an army, make yourself stronger by having more specialists and more running shoes on the ground.

Shake off your reticence. Don’t sit back and be overrun by fake news and lies (not to mention the Russians). This is a fight for survival. Not just for journalism, but for the Republic.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

False Positives and the Law

When that spot on your mammogram turns out to be benign, that’s called a false positive. When a blood test shows your PSA level to be normal and you later learn that you had prostate cancer all along, that’s a false negative.

In the law, we rely on evidence to judge guilt or innocence. Was the fingerprint at the crime scene a false positive? Was the alibi a false negative? Doctors ultimately learn the truth about whether their tests were giving them correct diagnoses: their patients develop cancer…or do not. Legal guilt or innocence is almost never known with such certainty. Many a man has gone to the gallows proclaiming his innocence.

A guest lecturer at Stanford Law School recently suggested that the law should try to evaluate legal evidence the way medicine evaluates blood tests, using the theoretical framework of false positives and false negatives. When asked in the Q&A about how to go about that, he said his interest was in posing the questions, and that someone else would have to provide the answers. (Insert your favorite lawyer joke here.)

What if we, unlike the reticent professor, wanted to wade into the murky swamp of evidence? How might we test its reliability?

The clues are stored on ruled-and-numbered legal sheets in gray courthouse filing cabinets and in countless post-trial jury interviews. But they are so scattered and inaccessible that they have not been of much use. Enter the digital wizards of Silicon Valley. With today’s learning algorithms to sift and make sense of vast amounts of data, perhaps the secrets in those dusty tombs can now be unlocked. 

For instance: In how many cases did an eyewitness provide what was apparently the key to conviction? And in how many of those was the defendant later convincingly exonerated by DNA evidence or the confession of another?

What do juries say about what influences them? If we asked them in a systematic way over the course of thousands of trials, and made their answers searchable, what would our artificial intelligence programs tell us about what evidence is most important? And what would we say about that? Is the evidence that convinces juries of a kind we are comfortable being the basis for life or death judgments?

The law has a horror of false positives. A jury’s verdict is not a guide for treatment that can be given and withdrawn, it is a binary final determination: guilty or innocent. William Blackstone, the famous eighteenth-century English legal thinker, said: “It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.”

Our legal system relies on our humanity. Its foundation is our earnest desire to judge one another fairly. There is a mass of data on how well we do that to be gathered and scanned and looked at from all sides. On questions of the quality and reliability of legal evidence, artificial intelligence could help us get better at passing judgement on our fellow man. Far from being the threatening overlord of science fiction, it could strengthen an essential element of what makes us human.

Monday, November 21, 2016

A Prayer to You

I have a friend who calls himself a non-theist. I think that means the same as what I am, an atheist, but without the baggage that atheism has picked up over the years. In some circles atheism is a kissing cousin of Satanism. Certainly we atheists are utterly lacking in morality.

After hearing my friend's views on how we should be treating one another in a pluralistic world where cultures and religions constantly collide, I pronounced him a humanist. He seemed to like that. What he is worried about is not an afterlife, but this life. Not an ideal of virtue, but tolerance of imperfection. Not a Pontiff’s golden robes, but Mother Theresa’s mud spattered hem.

The problem with being a humanist is that we’re not very organized. There are no churches where we meet regularly and talk about things that concern us. Atheists have been organizing recently, but our main concern at this point seems to be to be permitted to emerge from the shadows of opprobrium, to convince theists that we are not the devil offering them apples of hedonistic shame.

We can do better.

There is a humanist church to be formed: The Church of You and Me. You pray to me, I’ll pray to you.

Now, hard as it is for me to admit it, I’m not omnipotent, so you may wonder what good praying to me might do. My first response would have to be: what good has praying to The Big Guy ever done? That’s a little snarky, so let’s put that aside and see if we have common ground.

It’s not omniscience we will be hoping for when we pray to one another, it’s an open mind. We will pray that we do the things we think must be done. We will encourage one another. We will reassure each other that we are listening. 

Instead of praying to a deity to hold back the flood, we can organize relief efforts on Facebook. Instead of praying for our daughters to be cured of mortal diseases, we can ask each other to donate to research for cures. Instead of thanking god for “these thy gifts we are about to receive,” we can talk about where our bounty really comes from and what part we might play in sharing its with others.

Thank you my friends who will be seated around my Thanksgiving table. Thank you for blessing me with your love (or, in some cases, at least your patience). I pray you show that same kindness to those among your family and friends who have become estranged. I pray you show that kindness to strangers. I pray you bless them with your love.

Monday, November 14, 2016

I'm Sorry, America

You’re making bad choices, my peeps. I’ve seen it before. Running away from home. Sleeping through classes. Depressed. Trying a little weed. Maybe something stronger. Living on the street. Paranoid. Angry. Self-righteous. Delusional.

And those were just family members.

Now the sickness has spread to the point that we have elected our drug dealer, our enabler, our pimp, as President.

Every time someone close to me starts making terrible choices, I try to steer them in a better direction. It never seems to work. Sometimes they get better and say that I should keep trying, that those voices of encouragement stay in their heads, even though it may not seem like it, that they hear those voices even as they make more bad choices.

They also tell me that there is basically nothing I can do. That they have to figure it out themselves. That change has to come from within them. I usually keep trying. I do it for me as much as for them. It’s hard to stand by and do nothing while someone destroys his life.

Sometimes they change, many times not. When they do change, it is usually long after I have given up. Not on them, exactly, but on convincing them. They change because they convince themselves. They hit bottom, as they like to say. Sometimes hitting bottom kills them, but sometimes it is the painful catalyst for rebirth.

And so it is with my country now. We are making bad choices. It started with the Tea Party. I thought we went to rehab for that, but it seems we have relapsed.

At each mile on the road, I have talked myself blue. If my voice is being heard at all, it’s not influencing behavior. I’m talked out now.

Like any addict, we have excuses and rationalizations for our bad choices. Blame the enablers. Blame the technocrats, the bureaucratic overlords. Blame the snobby elites. The drug dealer is the only one who understands us.

I would blame myself, but I reserve that special hell for bad things that happen to my children. I don’t feel responsible for the bad choices we are making now. Over and over, I’ve warned that we should not do what we are doing. Now I guess I’m going to have to do what I inevitably end up doing when someone I love goes down this rabbit hole despite everything I’ve tried to prevent it: cross my fingers and hope they figure it out before they do too much permanent damage.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Those People

Those people are stupid. They’re lazy and ignorant. A lot of them are addicts. They spend a lot of time making excuses for themselves, but they are mainly responsible for their own situation. If they want to have better lives, they need to try harder.

Who are those people? 

Not blacks or Mexicans. For me, those people are what we might call Trump Whites: white men with education that stopped in high school, down on their luck because the jobs their fathers did are gone, discouraged, tribal…and mad as hell about it. Burn baby burn!

My attitude toward them, I’m ashamed to admit, has been no better than their opinions of minorities. You know: leeches on society, we’d be better off without them. 

I grew up knowing better than to make eye-contact with certain men in rural bars in the south. Rednecks, we called them. After a few beers, it seemed like a fair percentage were mean as snakes. “What are you looking at, son?” My cue to slide out of there.

It was hard to develop sympathy for someone like that. Fear, sure, but not sympathy. They were to be avoided, not aided.

But times have changed. And maybe even I’ve changed.

Much has been written about the white men who are flocking to Trump. He’s their beacon of hope. Or that’s what they think. And the likely reason they think that is that they haven’t seen any other beacons lately. For the last few decades, progressives have been focused more on poor minorities. Minorities need help, no doubt, but it may be time to take a fresh look at the needs of poor whites.

In some ways poor and formerly middle class whites are as trapped in their circumstances as blacks in Detroit or on the south side of Chicago. There’s not much opportunity for them in their communities. Steel is gone. Coal is going. Plants are rusting. 

And yet, their homes are there. Their families and friends are there. Even if they wanted to pick up and move, where would they go? Where are there jobs for them, with their poor education and outmoded skills? They feel hemmed in and abandoned. They’re pissed off and looking for someone to blame. And for someone to lead them out of the wilderness. If a real prophet isn’t on the scene, a false prophet, like Trump, will do.

I think those of us on the left had better figure out a way to be that prophet. We can’t do it by patronizing them. We can’t do it by looking down our noses at them. We can’t do it by being angry at them. Or afraid of them. We have to figure out how to help them.

Not only is it the right thing to do, it’s in our collective self-interest. We’re not going to be able to get anything done politically in this country until we find ways to improve the prospects of these folks, and their faith in the rest of us.