Monday, July 25, 2016

Familiarity Breeds Contednedness

I grew up on white bread. My favorite sandwich was called a “round chicken.” It was white breast meat with white mayonnaise on white bread cut in circles. No crust, not a speck brown. Even the iceberg lettuce was white. The bread was so soft that it held the impression of your fingers when you put it down between bites. Most often it was Shorty who served me those sandwiches. He was a black waiter at the club. I could see he was black, but I hardly thought about it. He was a nice guy. I was thirteen.

That was it in my hometown: white and black. Mostly the blacks waited on the whites. I didn’t know any Jews, or if I did I didn’t know it. Mexicans were good-natured movie sidekicks, Pancho to the Cisco Kid. All I knew about China was what I read in The Good Earth. 

Gradually, my horizons expanded. I met Hispanic people in Los Angeles when I lived there. They were nice. They were gardeners and nannies, serving me like Shorty had, but I was different by then. I was no longer thirteen and thinking only of myself, and I began to see that if you spend enough time with someone, you get to know the person behind the role. You learn their joys and hardships, their politics and religion, and you come to realize that they are more like you than different.

I live in Palo Alto now, where many of my kids’ friends and a fair number of mine are Asian. They aren’t serving me, they are inventing the future. If anything, with my obsolete low-tech skills, I should be serving them. They are nice to me anyway. When I’m out of the room, I don’t think they make jokes about how clueless I am.

Over all these years, as I have moved deeper and deeper into the polyglot of humanity, one thing that stands out is that if you get to know people they’re almost always nice to you. And you to them. Friendliness and respect are like benevolent viruses passed along by close personal contact.

One of the problems we’re having now—and a reason for Donald Trump’s ugly success—is that many of us don’t know the people we are being told to fear. Take Muslims, for example. To a Westerner, Islam can seem like an exotic, dark religion. Often the women are forced to cover themselves. The young men are told they get virgins in heaven if they martyr themselves by killing infidels. The Koran is not widely understood and (like the Bible) is frequently misused.

I’m not sure what we do about all that. Have “Take a Muslim to Lunch” days? Are there even enough Muslims to go around in Kansas? Or will we just end up with a few fat Muslims?

The other approach, the one Trump wants to frighten us into, is to keep them as far away from us as possible. That will work for a little while, in some parts of the country. But obviously not forever.

The world’s population is growing, and migrating. Like it or not, we are on a collision course with diversity. Our choice is to try to understand and steer carefully through the change, or to try to run over it. If you think of us as something like the Titanic in a sea of icebergs, it’s pretty obvious which course is wisest.

Saturday, July 23, 2016


Depending on how you look at it, I’ve been away from home for either forty-five years or seventy-five days. The home I’ve been away from for so long is Nashville, Tennessee. The short-term absence is from the United States of America.

The Colossus of Rhodes, as imagined in a
16th-century engraving by Martin Heemskerck
In Nashville I was raised in privilege. I was a doctor’s son, a country-club brat and an all-boys prep schooler oblivious to the pervasive wickedness of Jim Crow. The black people I knew were caddies and cooks. They were all nice to me. I thought it was because they liked me.

By the time I finished law school and moved to Los Angeles my eyes had opened to racial discrimination, so that when I left, I was fleeing not only it but my own shame that my life had condoned it.

I returned to Nashville many times over the years, once even to live for a few years, but I was always a visitor. It wasn’t my home, and I didn’t want it to be.

I live in Palo Alto now, and have been in California most of my adult life. California has always seemed like a dream to me, an island of lost children. There are dark fissures, but sunshine and surf and vineyards are diverting. Of course I’ve learned gradually, almost reluctantly, that we in California have our own Jim Crow tendencies, with Hispanics playing the role of blacks, picking strawberries instead of cotton.

Like the African American caddies and cooks of my boyhood, my gardener and my children’s nanny seemed to like me. I know Sonia loves my sons.

I was shocked when California passed Proposition 187 to deny welfare benefits to illegal immigrants. It was overturned in court, but our ugly side had shown itself. Then we passed Proposition 8, banning gay marriage; and again the courts gave us a second chance. It has taken me a while to accept that California has bigots, just like the South.

California’s response to its own ugly instincts has been more hopeful than that of Southerners in the fifties and sixties to the elevation of blacks to full citizenship, at least in the eyes of the law. Not as much anger and hatred. Gradually we have accepted and embraced our large Hispanic population, even those who arrived illegally. We give undocumented residents driver licenses and welcome their children into our universities as residents.

California is investing in its immigrants. Not only because it is the moral thing to do, but because they are our future. Hispanics now outnumber whites in the state.

And these investments are paying off. Our economy is strong, we are innovating, and we have budget surpluses. Whereas the economies in states like Kansas, which have refused medicaid expansion, cut taxes on the rich and slashed social service spending, are struggling.

California is not perfect, but to me it is a model for how diverse people can come together in tolerance and mutually supportive enterprise for the benefit of all.

Which brings me to that other, shorter time away from home. I’ve been traveling in Europe for two months. You can’t go to Europe with your eyes open and not be struck by mankind’s ancient need to build walls and moats to protect itself from the onslaught of the other. 

Once again Europe is dealing with a surge of refugees, most of whom just want to be safe, but a few of whom are dangerous. When I visit Europe, I feel like a history student on a field trip. The beauty, banality and bestiality of mankind over the centuries is laid out in palaces, cafes and fortresses.

America is a young country, and I was young when the walls of segregation were being torn down by the Supreme Court in the fifties and Congress in the sixties. The fact that the popular legislative will followed, almost obediently it seemed, the moral dictates of the courts made it seem to me that freedom and fairness and equal opportunity were bright suns burning away old mists.

Now, at least at the Republican convention, those suns have set again, and the dark mist is creeping back in. I want to scream the way I did as a boy when a hapless fool in a Wolfman movie walked into a London fog: “No, don’t go there!”

Donald Trump has put on the tyrant’s epaulets. Only he, he says, can save us from the horror of dark-skinned people who want to kill us and rape our women. His harangues would be laughable, like a Saturday-Night-Live parody of a banana-republic thug with ridiculous hair, except that people are listening. Not just a few people. Enough that he is tied in some polls in the race for the presidency.

I did not think this was possible. I thought we had put our white robes and hoods and burning crosses in museums and taken our own pledge of “Never Again.” 

But I was wrong. And now I feel vaguely sick to be going back to America. Sick with apprehension and dread. Sick that my country could ignite in its own Holocaust.

My physical home is California, but my existential home is America. From a political and social standpoint California is a fair proxy for the way I might hope the country will go as it moves forward on its journey toward greater inclusiveness and equality of opportunity.

Donald Trump stands across that path like the giant Colossus he would have us believe he is, created in the image of Helios, god of the Sun. The ancient Colossus of Rhodes was erected to celebrate a great victory against invaders. That is Trump’s call to us. Repel those who would destroy you.

He is right in his prescription, but he has singled out the wrong threat. It is he who must be repelled. It is he who would destroy the very idea of America. It is he who would leave us no better off than all those European hill towns with crumbling walls that could not hold back the inexorable progress of man out of the darkness of bigotry and hatred.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016


I’m here in Cleveland, getting word of the Republican Platform as it is being forged on planks from trees that are up to six thousand years old, as old as the earth itself.

The big takeaway is that religion must be our polestar. The Bible should be taught in public schools because a good understanding of its contents is “indispensable for the development of an educated citizenry.” 

The Bible offers helpful everyday advice on subjects like what to do about your adulterous wife (kill her) or your homosexual neighbor (kill him too). Also important scientific facts, like the age of the earth (six thousand years, as noted above).

Some of the lesser, but still fine-grained, dense and hard as nails planks are:

Pornography is “a public menace.” This is generally understood to encourage seeking out pornography to destroy it, but only after making sure it’s really pornography, which might mean looking at it for a few seconds…or minutes…or hours. Better safe than sorry. You can never be too sure.

Judicial appointments should go only to judges “who respect traditional family values.” This plank was a big favorite of the divorce-lawyer lobby. Also supported by the DUI-attorney lobby.

 “Natural marriage” between a man and a woman is most likely to result in offspring who do not become drug-addicted or otherwise damaged. Because that’s been working out so well.

“Man-made law must be consistent with God-given, natural rights.” Showing that Republicans, while serious and god-fearing, still have twinkles their eyes, this dictum is widely known as the skinny dipping plank.

We’ll be interviewing presumptive nominee Donald Trump later to get his views, but his staff has hinted that since his name is not mentioned once, how good can it be?

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Poker Down the Hall, Donald is Bringing the Beer

When I was in college, I used to play poker with a couple of friends whom I loved but who didn’t seem that smart. One of them always brought a few of his football buddies. I figured I couldn’t lose. But I did, almost every time. Turns out I have some compulsive need to draw to inside straights. Especially after a few beers. My friends always brought the beer. I guess they knew.

So that was an expensive lesson in not being as smart as I thought I was.

I learned it pretty well: I almost never play poker.

I fear that our country is about to repeat my mistake. We think we’re down a few chips but we can make it up with a flush named Donald Trump. Let me just tell you: not going to happen, the make it up part. If he gets elected, it’ll be like we have to suit up and go into the huddle with the New England Patriots: we’re going to get beat up pretty bad.

I drew to those inside straights because I wanted to believe in a miracle. Anyone voting for Donald Trump will be doing more or less the same thing. The odds are impossibly long, but maybe he can bring back our manufacturing base, bring Putin to his knees, deport the people living in your town you don’t like, never liked, make your son respect you and your lover give you…well, you know, whatever you've been missing.

Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton just wants us to take our medicine. We may know in our heart of hearts that it’s good for us, but we don’t like it and we’re sick and tired of being told to take it…especially, let’s face it, by a woman.

To put this election in historical perspective, Eisenhower was Clinton, and George W. was Trump. Boring and steady versus macho and disastrous. Ike plodded to prosperity and interstate highways. W. swaggered his way into the worst foreign policy mistake (Iraq) ever. W. didn't take anybody’s advice but his own, either. Sound familiar?

Sometimes we’re just itching for a change. This is one of those times. But we’re going to end up in a disastrous affair that ruins our relationship with one another if we take a room in the Trump Tower. And that would be the best outcome. The worst would be cities in nuclear ashes.

I’m sympathetic, as I said. And one reason is that it’s hard to tell from news reports that Trump is as big a liar and idiot as he is. 

I have this to say to the men and women in the media; Grow a pair.

It’s up to you to tell it straight, but that doesn’t mean parroting everything a candidate says. If “When did you stop beating your wife?” gets asked and reported often enough, a large number of people are going to be pretty sure wife beating has been going on.

Hillary is no saint, we all know that. The FBI said she was careless with her emails. The House spent a long time trying to prove she was careless with embassy lives in Libya. But she served well in the Senate and Barack Obama made her Secretary of State and sings her praises for the job she did.

You have to ask yourself, what would you rather have: a little careless, a little paranoid, but experienced and steady; or a big fat liar with no judgement and no understanding that he has no judgment?

This is serious, people. This is not the time to draw to an inside straight. Donald is buying the beer, and he’s telling the press stories about all the poker hands he’s won—he’s a big winner, huge—and there are reports that he took home the crown at the World Championship of Poker, which was solid gold, by the way. He says can teach us how to win too if we put him in the Oval Office, which would make a perfect place for a few craps tables and a roulette wheel.