Monday, August 21, 2017

The Penumbra of the Eclipse

Maybe its because of Charlottesville. Or BLM. Lately the news is full of stories about discrimination. Even white folks trying to get into Harvard think they are being discriminated against. Jeff Sessions has their backs.

There was a piece in the LA Times today about the systematic housing discrimination in LA that begat Watts. It wasn’t all private deed restrictions. The federal government wouldn’t let public housing for blacks be located in certain places, and insisted that blacks not be allowed to live in complexes that were predominantly white. This was the New Deal federal government, the post WWII federal government. The housing segregation so established is now perpetuated through zoning regulations that limit housing density in white neighborhoods: no housing projects (for you know who) need apply.

Then there was the piece two days earlier in the New York Times about how uneven enforcement of our drug laws has locked up blacks at a much higher rate than whites. Blacks go to jail. Whites go to rehab. The numbers are alarming.

So I posted those two pieces on Facebook and noted that we whites need to face up to our history of racial discrimination and make amends. Apparently not everyone agrees.

One person suggested that the government can’t help those who don’t help themselves. Welfare creates dependency is the root of that argument.

Another said he didn’t think blacks wanted me telling them who should be their neighbors. They like being together. You know, like my southern ancestors used to say: “They be happy down on the place.”

My point in writing this is not that ever since slavery, ever since Jim Crow, even today, racial prejudice holds back blacks and other people of color, it’s that we whites have apparently become weary of admitting it. We’re not as bad as holocaust deniers; we admit that slavery was a thing; we even admit that discrimination lasted a long time. But we have taken to denying that it continues. And we have taken to denying that its pernicious effects linger, continuing to limit opportunity for blacks, who have almost as hard a time breaking out of some pockets of segregated poverty, in places like the south side of Chicago, for instance, as their slave ancestors did getting off the plantation.

I thought this debate was put to rest by the court cases and laws of the civil rights era. Not so, as it turns out. 

But we have come a long way since MLK died for our sins in how we invoke the majesty of the law to insure equal justice for all: our Department of Justice has gone from defending the civil rights of blacks to insisting that blacks and Asians not take white boys’ places at Harvard.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Collecting My Poeple

“White people, save all your heartbreak and sadness and get off your ass and collect your people. #Charlottesville.”
       —Ferguson Freedom Fighter, Kayla Reed

Kayla Reed’s tweet was quoted in a recent sermon posted online by Mike Kinman, an Episcopal minister from Pasadena, California. “We have met the white racists,” they might have said, “and they are us”; or if not us literally, then at least they are our cousins. They may not be carrying torches, but they are sympathetic, even if they have spun elaborate webs of rationalization to avoid admitting it. Rev. Kinman’s thesis was that “after all we have put people of color through in this nation’s history…as white people we must not burden them with the responsibility of dismantling these systems and defeating this evil.”

We must collect our people. Bring them around to the view that not only is white supremacy unacceptable, black people and others of color have legitimate grievances that it is the obligation of whites to redress.

I’d like to do that, collect my people. I’ve been trying, but I’m not succeeding. I’m either singularly ineffective as a persuader, or I’m up against something I don’t understand well enough to argue against. I fault my understanding rather than the views of those I am failing to reach because I can’t believe the people I debate—smart friends and family members—are heartless racists.

In their view, leftist violence is a bigger problem that violence on the right. I cite studies showing that violence on the right is three times more prevalent in recent decades that that from the left, but the response I get is BLM is a bunch of thugs.

Blacks are takers, some of my friends say. When we give them more welfare, we aren't doing them any favors, we’re merely creating dependency, stripping them of individual initiative and self-respect. No amount of data about the deplorable poverty in which many black children are raised seem to alter this view. “They just need to try harder.” Never mind that they don’t have the resources to support individual effort, resources so abundant to those born to privilege, largely white.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to tediously trot out all the arguments back and forth. What I want to explore instead, is why no amount of rational debate seems to change minds. At least not the minds I’m trying to change. As I said, it may be that I’m just not an effective debater, but I think it’s something different. I think we’ve mostly made up our minds and are now spending out time defending our positions rather than openly reconsidering their correctness.

Economic and political policy thought has become like religion. You're taught to believe a certain thing, and that’s it. You believe. It doesn’t matter if there are countervailing facts. Facts have never gotten in the way of faith.

Of course, I may have just joined my own cult. Maybe I’m as resistant to facts as I accuse my friends of being. I think I’m open-minded and curious, but I’m sure they do to. I think I’m right. They do too.

I have spirited debates over dinner with friends who are smart conservatives. I always come away thinking we have bridged the gulf between us, if only over one of the narrower tributaries. Then we have dinner again and start right back where we were. When we thought we were coming together, we were just being polite. That woks fine over dinner, less well over torches and AK 47s.

So I’m not doing a very good job of “collecting my people.” I’m giving it my all, in conversation and in writing, but I don’t think I’m making a dent.

Maybe I should try another approach. Waterboarding, perhaps. Or maybe I should just give up. 

Every time I think that, that I should just shut up, I remember one of the most powerful thoughts I’ve ever heard: MLK when he said, “In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

When you think of it that way, we have no choice but to keep speaking up, all of us.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

What I'm For

Republicans opposed Obama. Democrats oppose Trump. In its turn, each side has asked, “But what are you guys actually for?” 

Here’s what I’m for.

Personal Freedom:

I hate being told what to do. By anybody. Anytime. I put up with it when I must and do my best to avoid it the rest of the time. I'm a big fan of the Bill of Rights.

Self Reliance:

Work hard, be frugal, earn your way. Personal freedom depends on not being pushed around by the government, but it also depends on having money so that you can actually afford to enjoy your freedom as opposed to being stuck in a dead-end life where even if no one is bossing you around you might as well be in jail. When it comes to money, if you want more than a pittance, you have to earn it yourself.

A Helping Hand:

We all need help sometimes. Lord knows, I did. Someone was there for me when I needed them, and I like to think I’ve been there for others. Lately, the main way I do that is by paying taxes and supporting social safety net programs. I could volunteer more, but I don’t. I guess that’s selfish of me. But I’d happily pay more taxes to help those in need. There are so many who need help, and they are so scattered into so many communities and families, it’s really the only practical way.

Progressive Taxation:

“From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” Yes, I know who said it. No, I don’t advocate communism. But it’s a pretty good underlying principle for progressive taxation and what I would call socialist-lite income redistribution, aka a helping hand.

International Engagement:

National isolationism doesn’t strike me as a good idea. It has a mediocre history. We might do okay for a while withdrawn into our protectionist self, behind our walls and oceans, but I think the world has gotten too complex and interrelated for that to last. In any event, we certainly will give up global leadership at a time when the values we champion—freedom of the press, equal treatment of women, democracy—continue to have fragile footholds in many parts of the world. History teaches, I believe, that turning a blind eye to the despotism and abuse that throughout the world survive like cockroaches does not work out well for us.

For me, in order of importance, that’s pretty much it; or enough of it from which to extrapolate.

I have a few conservative friends with whom I debate regularly. As you can imagine, we find plenty of common ground on the first two points: personal freedom and self-reliance. Where we get tripped up is on the specifics of how to implement point three: a helping hand. I’m fine with taxes and government safety-net programs, but some of my friends think that private enterprise and personal charity will do the trick. I think that’s unrealistic. I would say I think it's naive, but none of my conservative friends is naive. They know it’s unrealistic, I suspect, but something in them can’t let go of it. I suppose it cuts too hard against personal freedom (theirs, from taxation and inefficient government) and self reliance (what the needy should be practicing more of).

So we disagree. I’ve had these discussions with these same smart people or ones like them for many years. We cite facts and figures to one another and occasionally I learn something I didn’t know and make an adjustment at the margins of my philosophy, but overall the principles I believe in remain the same (at least in what I would call the time of my Enlightenment, which began after the certainty of my youth wore off). Maybe I’m hardheaded. I prefer to think I’ve just thought things through and come to rational conclusions.

There is lot of talk now about how we liberals need to work harder to understand Trump supporters. I understand them. I’ve been debating with them for years. I grew up debating with their ideological forebears, one of whom was my father. I just don't agree with them.

An obvious point that nevertheless bears making it that the basis for one’s conviction matters. Science is a stronger foundation than religion. There is nothing wrong with religion from the standpoint of personal faith and comfort, but the authors of the Bible, for instance, stopped doing scientific research over a thousand years ago. Science is fact. Religion is faith. They both have a place in modern life, but they should try not to poach on one another’s territory. There’s no arguing with faith, of course. I used to think there was no arguing with fact, but recent political events have proved me wrong.

So what does all this mean in terms of my personal engagement in this fractious world? I do my best to stay informed. I debate with people who have other views, both for the fine sport of it and to make sure I’m not missing anything obvious. I balance new ideas against the things I care about. I support reasonable limitations on personal freedom to promote public safety (TSA lines), but not to discriminate (voter ID laws, Muslim immigration bans). I accept taxes as my contribution to our collective enterprise and well-being. I don’t particularly like or trust government, which is inefficient and occasionally corrupt, but I see no alternative to it for certain undertakings.

I don’t know where the country is heading just now. I was surprised by Trump’s election. I’m shocked by his rhetoric. I hope we will have a voter backlash that will purge not only Trump but the right-wing ideologues led by men like Paul Ryan and Ted Cruz. I am far from sanguine that will happen, however. We’ll just have to see. Right now I’m glad to be living in California in a politically progressive era for the state (which has had its not so progressive decades, not that long ago). I plan to hang on to what I stand for, to speak out for it, and to hope that others are listening and agree. 

From a Machiavellian standpoint, it would be nice if we Democrats would stop fighting among ourselves over who has the best ideas, and candidate, to advance a progressive agenda. I read a piece in The New York Times Magazine this morning saying that the term “liberal” is now reviled on both the right (for obvious reasons) and left (as not leftist, meaning socialist, enough). Please, people. Could we get together here and fight the common enemy, the ones who want to strip millions of poor of their food stamps and healthcare, who want to undermine decent public education, who want to rape the environment and de-regulate the oligarchy? Sure, Clinton Democrats and Sanders Democrats have their differences, but they are nothing compared to the differences each have with the direction Trump, Ryan and McConnell would take us.

Let’s stop brawling in the street outside the bar while the bartender counts his money.

Friday, May 26, 2017

The Old Jalopy

The president may get some of his brutal domestic spending cuts approved, but we can recover from that if the electorate decides it has had enough. He undoubtedly will set back our global relationships with our most important allies, but we can recover from that too. It is possible he will swagger into a shooting match with North Korea; that would be bad, possibly very bad. Recovering from a nuclear exchange of any kind would be difficult.

Still, I’m hopeful. Partly it’s just my nature to be optimistic. “Someone to love, something to do, something to look forward to.” The three keys to happiness. It’s hard to have number three—something to look forward to—if you're not optimistic.

It’s hard to imagine the apocalypse, so I don’t.

But I will say this: I am alarmed by the way so many of us in America, the land of freedom and opportunity, the beacon of democracy, exercise our right to be part of setting the direction of the country. I know some people are bitter that globalization has left them behind. I know some people are disdainful, and afraid, of the cultural changes they see creeping up on them like slowly rising flood waters. I know many men still think a woman’s place is in the kitchen. Some women too.

But the great thing about our country has always been the promise of freedom of choice. Chose your religion; the government won’t interfere. Chose your partner. Chose whether and when to have a child. Well, I thought we had put that one to bed, but we haven’t. All I have to say on that subject is that if you believe abortion is immoral, as many do, you must also believe that those children you insist be born should have every possible guarantee of food, health care and education.

I grew up in the Deep South. I’ve seen the fire-and-brimstone pulpit from up close. I’ve seen the burning crosses. Even though I grew up with all that, it was like poison ivy in the woods: as long as I didn’t get too close, it didn’t blister and itch.

Now, somehow, the poison ivy seems to have come for me. Its spores are airborne. There is no avoiding it. They are blown across the land by the hot wind of the very institution we treasure most: democracy.

It’s hard to know what people are thinking when they vote. I suspect that like most judgements we make, it’s complicated. I’m willing to acknowledge and indulge that complexity. It’s part of the deal if we really mean to have a society in which everyone gets an equal vote. It used to be just land-owning men who had that power. Now it’s everyone.

The land-owning men of voting rights past used their franchise to protect their interests. Now that we all can vote, we should be doing the same thing, that is voting for policies and men and women we think will do what’s best for us. We shouldn’t use the right to vote, which so much blood has been shed to preserve, as a means of popping off. It’s not a place to register frustration. It’s not a place for snark. It’s not a wise-ass remark at a cocktail party or a barbecue.

If we want to protect our great democracy, we have to respect it. We have to go to some trouble for it. We have to think about what we are voting for and why. I’m not saying this just because I’m not partial to the latest election results. I’m willing to listen. But the more I read about why some people voted the way they did, and their shock that, for instance, they are now in danger of losing their health care and safety net supports, the more I wonder if they were being thoughtful when they voted, or just blowing off steam. 

It’s easy to get frustrated. It’s easy to say, “Screw the bastards.” But that doesn’t get us anywhere. We have to keep our cool. If we want the old jalopy we call democracy to keep running, we have to take care of it. We have to give at least as much thought to the consequences of how we cast our votes as we do to the kind of oil we put in our cars. If we don’t, in both cases, the engine will freeze up.

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.

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.