Hanging Out With Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei, in town to promote his new film “Human Flow” is less like a global icon than a kid on the first day of vacation. He gleefully mugs for photos, takes selfies with – and of – his audiences, bears a perpetual crinkly smile and when asked “When are you happiest?” replies, “Now.”

Ai Weiwei 10.3.17

Ai Weiwei smiles for a fan

But the message of the internationally renowned artist is deadly serious. He wants the world to confront the fact that over 65 million human beings are displaced, most of them living in deplorable conditions in refugee camps and only a tiny fraction (about 3%) being relocated. “Human Flow” depicts refugees in 23 countries – in camps, on the move, struggling across deserts, through murky waters and occasional war zones. It documents a staggering amount of human suffering which its creator wants us to face as fellow human beings. “The world is shrinking,” he says; “people from different religions, different cultures are going to have to learn to live with each other.”

Ai appeared before a sold-old crowd at the Commonwealth Club recently, in conversation with Climate One founder and host Greg Dalton, who started off by asking what his guest felt Europe should do. “It’s not just a European problem,” Ai Weiwei responded, “it’s global – Iraq, Myanmar, elsewhere. Policies in the U.S. seeking to reduce immigrants, enforce a travel ban, move away people who have been here since childhood – there is a strong trend to violate human rights and traditional beliefs. We are all refugees.”

Ai & Greg Dalton 10.17

With Climate One’s Greg Dalton

Ai Weiwei was born in 1957, the year his father, the Chinese poet Ai Qing  was arrested and denounced during the Anti-Rightist Movement. He was one year old when the family was sent to a labor camp in Beidahuang, Heilongjiang. According to his Wikipedia page, they were later exiled to Shihezi, Xinjiang in 1961, where they lived for 16 years. In 1976, at the end of the Cultural Revolution, Ai and his family returned to Beijing. At one point, during his lively conversation with Dalton at the Commonwealth Club, Ai said he used to be jealous of his father. “He got all those years, and all I got (referring to his imprisonment for “economic crimes” in 2011) was 81 days.” His 81 days were, however, no picnic. “If you argue with the government,” he said, “you never win. They become so powerful you can get suicidal.”Ai Weiwei 1-10.17

On the issues closer to the focus of Climate One, Ai spoke of how China “has made huge progress, and has become quite economically powerful. But the dark side are environmental problems: heavily polluted air and rivers. Besides that there is huge corruption. There are internal struggles inside the party; no trust, no real creativity because there’s no freedom of speech.” To Dalton’s remark that Ai had once tried to work within the system, Ai laughed. “I was very naïve.” Despite his history of battling the government Ai was given his passport in 2015 and now lives in Berlin.

“When they handed me my passport, the guy said, “We’ve known each other for so long . .  .”

Sixty-five Million Migrant Stories

Talk of “Immigrants” and “Migrants” is part of life today: some 65 million human beings are on the move, forced from their homes by war, flood, hunger, persecution, living in overcrowded camps, or simply walking. The talk can obscure the fact that these are 65 million individual stories. This is one of them.

Ke at Calvary 10.8.17

The author with Ke

My new friend Ke came to Calvary Presbyterian Church recently, speaking first to the entire congregation and later to a group grappling with the issue of becoming a Sanctuary Church. More on that later. Ke accompanied the Rev. Deborah Lee, Senior Program Director of Immigration, with the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity, whose credentials include several decades of work for social justice despite appearing (to this octogenarian at least) to be 15 or 16 years old at most. Rev. Lee and her organization work to help vulnerable people, and to help people like this writer and others understand how they might help.

It is Ke’s story that I want to tell.

Ke came to the U.S. forty years ago as a very young child, escaping the horrors of the raging Vietnam war. If you’re old enough to remember those days you will remember Vietnam as one of the seriously ill-advised wars of our country’s history. But Ke – whose full name is Nghiep Ke Lam – was lucky to survive the perilous journey to freedom and was granted refugee status. According to this writer’s unscientific research, some 800,000 Vietnamese refugees were resettled in the U.S. in those years, not all into ideal circumstances.

Ke’s family found a place to live in an unsavory San Francisco neighborhood. When he was 7 years old he was confronted by a group of bullies who gave him the option of running for his life or fighting one of them. He decided to fight. After he pummeled the older bully to the ground the others congratulated him – an early lesson in problem-solving by violence. When he was 8 he took a year off from school to care for his new baby brother; his father had left the family and his mother was struggling to make ends meet. Once he returned to school Ke did well enough to be accepted into the city’s most prestigious public high school – but because it was too far from his neighborhood he couldn’t take advantage of the opportunity.

Vietnam war

         Vietnam War 1972                               Photo by Raymond Depardon

At 17 Ke committed a crime that would send him to prison for the next two decades. While there he stayed fit, avoided trouble and took advantage of every chance to pick up new skills and credentials. “I can fix the plumbing in your house,” he told the church congregation. “I can also offer counseling.” But he found a stronger calling: he now serves as fulltime Reentry Coordinator for the Asian Prisoner Support Committee, helping others who face the challenges he faced on being released from prison with no money and no job. A number of sources help Ke find used bicycles which he restores to working condition; he then gives them to those released from incarceration (usually having to teach the new bike owners how to ride) so they are able to seek and find work.

Will Calvary become a Sanctuary Church? We don’t have facilities to offer physical sanctuary, but could offer other levels of help such as advocacy or accompaniment (it can be scary to go to deportation hearings,) those sorts of perfectly legal things. There is no unanimity of opinion on this. Presbyterians tend to be strongly opinionated, and seldom opinionated in unison. Most of us do, though, spend time considering what Jesus might have to say about it all.

immigrants

Photo by Thomas Hawk

Meanwhile, Ke is at risk of deportation. The country to which he would be sent is not currently accepting deportees, something the Trump administration is pressuring countries to change. Also at risk of deportation are the 11+ million individuals now living in the U.S. Some of those human beings are bad people most Americans would want deported. Some of them are working hard at jobs, like Ke’s, that help others and strengthen our nation. Some of them are running businesses they’ve run for decades. Some of them have been in the U.S. since they were toddlers, never knowing any other homeland. Every one is an individual story.

And there are 65 million stories.

Take a Minute to Breathe

Breathe“Take a minute to breathe,” my watch said. How did it know? This message arrived, unbidden, in the late afternoon of a day full of unpleasant chores, contentious meetings, unexpected crises and the usual daily events. It made me laugh. And breathe. Or at the very least, sigh.

I don’t know about this breathing business. If we aren’t doing it we’re definitely dead, or about to be, but the conscious breathing business – there may be something to it. So it is certainly worth a reminder or two.

(Anyone who knows me knows I would never spend actual money for a gadget that tells me to breathe; I helped with a study at the request of a friend, and we got to keep the watch. But I have to admit to a growing affection. This gadget knows stuff.Watch After I finished working out in the park on the first day of San Francisco’s recent, obscene heat wave, it told me how far I’d walked, how much energy I’d expended, how high my heart rate had gone – and then it said, “It’s 96 degrees, dummy, what are you doing exercising in 96-degree heat? At your age??” Or something like that; I don’t remember its exact words. Of course, it doesn’t know everything. Such as, if I want to take a nap, shouldn’t it know I don’t want to be nudged to Stand after 15 minutes? I take it off for naps.)

But back to breathing.

Breathe.1Calm, measured, thoughtful breathing may be the only answer to finding peace in these days. North Korea firing nuclear missiles? Breathe. Hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, record-breaking heat waves and climate change deniers? Breathe. Air and water pollution, thanks to relaxed environmental regulations, threatening the very lives of your grandchildren? Breathe. And that latest tweet, post or whatever startling message from cyberspace? Breathe, breathe.

Perhaps someone who understands social media better than I could institute a new policy: No tweet, post or instant-photo can be fired off until the person behind it has taken three slow, deep breaths. Think about it. Breathe.2Such an action would require engaging the brain, and how much personal and national angst might be avoided if brains were required to be engaged in advance? A small  reduction in lies, vulgarities and scary messages . . .?

Sigh.

The Scary Danger of “Fake News” Talk

Fake news? The press is the enemy of the people? I am up to here with that.

newspapersDenigration of the press may be a way to excite some (happily minimal) percentage of Americans, but for all Americans – Democrats, Republicans, geezers, millennials and certainly everyone wanting to preserve our fragile, shared democracy – it is beyond dangerous.

I have been a newspaper/magazine writer for well over a half-century. I have made a lot of mistakes (most recently I omitted one 12-year-old from a list of grandchildren in a feature story; whew!) But I have NEVER knowingly written an untrue sentence. Anything not verifiably correct, furthermore, has been corrected by an editor. (We have now even cleaned up my act about the missing granddaughter with a follow-up story in the same newspaper.)

So, is attacking the free press just playing politics, or is it dangerous? Look at Turkey. At a conference in Budapest just three years ago I sat next to a university professor from Istanbul who said she could face arrest when she returned. “And if I were a journalist,” Demonstrations in Turkeyshe said “I’d be far more afraid.” Looking at the videos of journalists – and others – being led to trials that will most certainly lead to long sentences at best is a sobering view of where Turkey is now, under an autocrat (whom the U.S. theoretically supports.)

PBS News/Hour was recently anchored for one week by science correspondent Miles O’Brien, who has been a part of my family (it’s complicated) for more than a quarter century. I have not always agreed – familial love aside – with the personal choices this distinguished journalist has made. But I’m willing to bet he has NEVER written or spoken a knowingly false word in reporting the news. He is in a list of personal journalistic friends & heroes that include Roger Mudd, Charles McDowell, Belva Davis and a number of contemporary journalists – Michael Fitzgerald (Boston,) Caitlin Kelly (NY,) that list could go on. Not one of these news reporters ever has, or ever would, write or speak a word that was fake.

Here is what the First Amendment says:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free  exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Floyd Abrams

Floyd Abrams

Author Floyd Abrams was in San Francisco recently plugging his new book The Soul of the First Amendment. The talk, moderated by U.C.Berkeley Dean of the School of Journalism Ed Wasserman, involved reviews of cases – and they are legion – Abrams has argued, and wide-ranging talk about the freedoms guaranteed by the first amendment. But one opening remark, almost a throw-away, stuck with me. Abrams mentioned that President Trump’s comments about Mexicans, Muslims and other groups would be criminal in other democracies, citing cases in Canada and Finland that had resulted in criminal convictions for lesser remarks.

That, though, is not what most distresses this longtime reporter. I understand and appreciate the defense of free speech, even terrible speech with which I strongly disagree. (Think Westboro Baptist “Church.”) What makes my all-American heart ache is the speech that seeks to undermine our free press. If enough people can be led to distrust the press, an autocratic leader doesn’t need to bother throwing journalists in jail.

Think about it. Most reporters, commentators, broadcasters are fairly bright men and women who could make a lot more money doing something else. Do they go into the news business because of a passion to follow a story, to find the truth and set it free?

Or are they just in it for the fake?

Democracy is a fragile concept. After all these years, I hope ours doesn’t break.

Are facts dead? Say it isn’t so

“We’ve got to be nicer to each other. A little more humility; a little more good faith . . .”

facts

These were a few solutions to the condition of the country today offered recently by Author Tom Nichols, during a Commonwealth Club talk titled “Are Facts Dead?” Facts may not be hopelessly dead, but Nichols fears for their survival. (He’s talking about Facts here. Established knowledge. “Alternative facts” seem unendangered.) Nichols maintains that the proliferation of fact-slayers has a lot to do with the rise of narcissism and its corresponding I-know-more-than-you-do assumption.

Nichols, Professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval War College and a CBS TV political analyst, is most recently the author of The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters. Just to reinforce the fact that he falls into the category of expert himself, he is also a five-time undefeated Jeopardy! champion.

“The attack on expertise is part of the narcissistic trend,” he says; “but it’s also because people feel things are out of control. It becomes empowering to say ‘I don’t believe you’ – ‘I don’t believe the experts.’” Nichols readily admits that experts can be wrong. People like to point out ‘expert failure,’ to say, “Well, Thalidomide. Challenger.” You will never find an issue on which everyone was 100% right, he concedes, or a person who’s never made a mistake. But the denigration of experts and widespread refusal to accept known facts is a growing threat.

Tom Nichols & Melissa Caen 5.24.17

Tom Nichols with Melissa Caen

Moderator Melissa Caen, a political and legal analyst, TV personality and no slouch with facts and expertise herself, asked about Nichols’ students, and whether the problem of expert-doubting often starts with (adult) students.

“I tell my students,” Nichols says, “’You’re here to form opinions, not to have your opinions confirmed.’ The best weapon they can have, the most important skill to develop, is critical thinking. Rigid, ideological thinkers are easy to manipulate; critical thinkers are hard to manipulate.” Nichols can wax indignant about teachers who say they learn more from their students than their students learn from them. “I tell them NO! If they’re not learning far more from you then you’re not doing your job.”

The quick acceptance of any absurdity because it’s been pronounced on a TV show or an internet site, along with the doubting of experts is in no way confined to students, though. Non-facts, “alternative facts” and outright lies are being repeated over and over again by public figures today – encouraging people of all ages to accept them as truth. And this, Nichols believes, presents a very real threat to our democracy.

The only people who can keep things on track, Nichols argues, “are the voters. Ordinary citizens.” And it will help if they let experts do their job of getting at the facts. A little critical thinking on all sides might still keep civilization afloat.being nice

Meanwhile, maybe we should also try to be nicer to each other.

Art & the Protection of Democracy

Ward show w Fran

Schumaker with the writer

Ward Schumaker and Vivienne Flesher, two San Francisco-based, nationally recognized artists whom this writer is proud to call friends, have been fighting depression – to put it mildly – since last November. It is of course political – everything’s political these days – but for Schumaker and Flesher (who are in fact married to each other,) it’s about much more than politics. It’s about  human rights, the future of the planet their 9-year-old grandson will inherit, and protection of our democracy.

I met Schumaker shortly before the closing of his latest show at San Francisco’s Jack Fischer Gallery, for a brief talk about art and activism. (Sorry if you missed the show. You can still see his work at Fischer’s Potrero Street Gallery.) Does creating art help them deal with depression, I wondered?

Ward show 1“No. It’s just hard. But it’s what we do: get up in the morning, every day, and go to work at 8 AM.” Some extraordinary examples of Schumaker’s work were assembled for the latest show – creating them took about a year and a half, not all of which time was clouded in depression. My personal favorite is a piece titled “The cloud of unknowing.” Schumaker conceived the piece as a meditation, referencing the ancient (late 14th century) work of mysticism which suggests that contemplative prayer might lead to an understanding of the nature of God.

To mitigate their depression, however, Schumaker and Flesher are doing a little more than painting. They have created an assortment of postcards, some with messages on the front and some just featuring their original artwork. After printing out a stack of cards, they also printed out the names and addresses of every member of Congress, both Senate and House. (You can do the same, by following the links.) They keep these, along with a supply of 34-cent stamps, on their breakfast table, where every morning they enjoy coffee and The New York Times. When they find someone in Congress has done something positive, they send a thank-you postcard. Others get a card expressing disapproval.

Ward show 2Postcards take a little more time than a phone call or email, but are a powerful way to make one’s voice heard. Especially if one is worried about human rights, the future of the planet one’s grandchildren will inherit, and the protection of our democracy.

Plus: this is how democracy is protected.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Facts, Truth & Being Nice to One Another

Truth sign“Critical thinking,” says author Tom Nichols, “is that thing that says ‘Start asking questions. Don’t be afraid of where they go.’ It is okay to change your mind.”

Nichols, who has changed his mind more than once but has never not been a critical thinker, was in San Francisco recently promoting his latest book, The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters. He is more than a little concerned that the acceptance of untruths and outright lies, and the increasing willingness to ignore experts on all subjects, is going to get our democracy into deep trouble.

“There’s been a change,” he says, “from ‘I doubt you; explain.’ to ‘I know more than you do.’”

Tom Nichols & Melissa Caen 5.24.17

Tom Nichols & interviewer Melissa Caen

Nichols is unquestionably an expert himself – a professor at the U.S. Naval War College, at the Harvard Extension School, a Sovietologist, and a five-time undefeated Jeopardy! champion (among a long list of other credentials on his Wikipedia page) – and sees many reasons for the death of expertise. A virtual epidemic of narcissism, for one; technology in many of its uses and abuses for another. But the danger of the “collapse of expertise,” he says, is that it can easily lead to mob rule. And poof, there goes democracy. Nichols is concerned, as he writes in The Death of Expertise, that “Americans have reached a point where ignorance, especially of anything related to public policy, is an actual virtue.”

House minority leader Nancy Pelosi was also in town recently, talking a good bit about facts and truth herself. Unsurprisingly, Pelosi feels there is not much respect for either in the present administration. She opened her remarks with a report on President Trump’s first meeting with congressional leaders. “The first thing the president said was, ‘Do you know I won the popular vote?’ Now first, that wasn’t relevant to what we were there for. And it wasn’t true.”

Nancy Pelosi & Scott Shafer 5.30.17

Pelosi with interviewer Scott Shafer of KQED

Pelosi repeatedly said she felt things could get done, including on many issues that would require  cooperation between Democrats and Republicans. “But we have to start with facts. Data. Truth.”

Nichols says the best way to get the facts – “the real story” – is to read multiple sources. (“I read the Washington Post, New York Times, and Wall Street Journal.”) And to those who would say, “I don’t have time,” Nichols has one answer: “Yes. You. Do.”

If the issues and the problems are complex, Nichols suggests that part of the answer is sublimely  simple: “We have to be nicer,” he says. “We have to believe we want the best for each other.”

That has, in a not-so-distant past still fondly recalled by more than a few Americans, been true.