A little food for upbeat thought

“There is nothing wrong with America,” Rep. Adam Schiff said in a recent Commonwealth Club address, “that cannot be cured with what is right in America.” He was quoting former president Bill Clinton, surely a line worth quoting. Schiff’s overall message was so upbeat, at this particularly downbeat time in U.S. history, that this writer/listener came away hopeful.

Adam Schiff at CClub 2.20.18

Adam Schiff with Ellen Tauscher

Schiff doesn’t want us to be dismayed and overwhelmed. Worried about pollution? Climate change? Immigration? Reproductive justice? Gun control? Environmental destruction? Dreamers? Pick one, he advises. You can make a difference; pick one.

This seems such a welcome diversion from the ongoing national malaise that this space today is dedicated to additional pearls of wisdom and crumbs of food for thought from the same evening. All of these were gleaned from Commonwealth Club events and flashed on the screen while the sold-out audience waited for Schiff and his conversation partner, former Rep. Ellen Tauscher. Enjoy.

“Hope is the active conviction that despair will never have the last word” – Sen. Cory Booker

“Sometimes I wonder if our grace is taken for granted” – Van JonesGrace

“Good and evil exist in all races and all types of people no matter where they come from” – Kareem Abdul Jabbar

“The Republican party is my vehicle, not my master – I have the right to define the Republican party too” – Governor John Kasich

“Fame is a completely separate category from being an actor” – Frances McDormand

“The question is not big government or small government; the question is who government is for” – Robert Reich

“Humans crack under pressure; machines do not. But humans can dream; machines cannot.” – Garry Kasparov

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We try to avoid being overly political in this space. But we hope you enjoy pondering these gems – which happen to begin with a comment from an American politician and end with an astute observation from a Russian chess player.

A New Year’s wish: Human Rights for all

UN emblemBelated Human Rights Day greetings to all. In case you missed it, Human Rights Day was celebrated around the globe on December 10. It was the 69th anniversary of the proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris, 1948.

Admittedly, some of us have done a little better than others with this. But before we Americans get to feeling righteous, it’s worth noting that the U.S. is among a handful of countries (Russia, Palau . . .) which have not ratified the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW.) We’re okay with the Convention Against Torture, but not with the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It’s complicated.

Are women’s rights human rights? What about immigrant rights? Or the rights of workers (tech geniuses, janitors, whomever) to good working conditions? Or the rights of Yemeni refugees to food and shelter?

Fran & Ally McKinney 12.10.17

The author with Ally Timm

One person who believes human rights apply to all of us is Allyson McKinney Timm. Timm spoke recently at Calvary Presbyterian Church, trying to explain the UDHR (and a lot of complicated UN acronyms) and why human rights are basic to Christianity – as well as other religions. “Human rights,” she explains, “are inherent, apply to every individual based solely on the fact of being human. The only requirement is being a member of the human race.”

In the Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (a document worth reading) “Member States…pledged themselves to achieve, in cooperation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms,”

We wish.

Ally McKinney Timm was a successful attorney with a high-powered San Francisco law firm, advocating for justice in the juvenile prison system, when she left that comfortable life to move to Uganda and establish a field office of the International Justice Mission, defending widows and children there. She previously worked with the Rwandan genocide trials. Eventually she returned to Yale, first teaching human rights in the law school and then earning a Master of Divinity degree. All of those credentials and experiences led Timm to found Justice Revival, which she now serves as Director. Having witnessed the worst of what happens when human rights are denied, she has a determined passion for Justice Revival and its mission: to inspire, educate, and mobilize Christian communities to defend human rights for all. (Some conservative Christian organizations have been at the forefront of successful efforts to keep the U.S. from ratifying CEDAW, which is designed to eliminate discrimination against women.)

Eleanor Roosevelt UN monumentAnother woman with a passion for human rights was Eleanor Roosevelt. Wife of Depression-era President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the country’s longest-serving first lady was among many other things, the first U.S. representative to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. Her pivotal work on creating – and securing near-unanimous support for – the Universal Declaration of Human Rights won Mrs. Roosevelt an accolade never seen before, or since: a standing ovation for one of its members by the entire United Nations Assembly.

About that Declaration, and what it proclaims? Just a few of the basic rights to which every human on the planet is entitled include:

Life, liberty, security and equality

Freedom from discrimination

Freedom from torture and cruel or degrading punishment

Privacy: freedom from interference with home, family

Freedom of religion, conscience, belief

We wish.

You can read the entire document here. If there were ever a better roadmap to peace on earth, it would be hard to find.

Happy New Year, wherever on earth you may be. And God bless us every one.

Protests, and Hope for the Future

We considered it a badge of honor. An event I engineered recently (with a LOT of help from my friends) in San Francisco drew luminaries from the interfaith community, women’s rights and reproductive justice groups – and several stalwart protesters holding signs aloft in the chilly drizzle. What’s a champagne reception without protesters?Dr. Willie Parker flyer jpeg

Actually, they were not protesting the champagne reception (though they were there before it started.) They were protesting the main event that followed: Reproductive Justice on the Front Lines. It was a conversation between Director of the UCSF Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health Carole Joffe and noted physician/author Dr. Willie Parker. Dr. Parker, a deeply committed Christian and an abortion provider, believes it is morally right for a pregnant woman to control what happens to her body. The protesters believe the fetus takes priority over the woman carrying it. To set the record straight, our protesters were hardly worth notice as far as Dr. Parker is concerned – he is used to being the target of threats and angry insults hurled by protesters who regularly surround the deep south clinics where he flies to provide service to mostly young, poor women of color seeking abortion care.

I appreciated our protesters’ civility, but rather strongly disagree with their dismissal of women like me. These sign-carriers would have opposed my back-alley 1956 abortion, demanding that I carry that rape-caused, life-wrecking pregnancy to term.march-crowd

Which brings up this current reality: there are protesters who want to destroy rights, and protesters fighting to keep them. There are sign-carriers wanting to send us back to the dark ages, and fighters for light overcoming darkness. Fighters for human rights, for the poor and marginalized, for the planet, for decency, sanity, truth.

I’m with the protesters who are fighters-for. Their movement aims to get us back to being a country of justice for all, and get the U.S., eventually, back to its long-held place of respect around the world. It’s a movement forward that I joined with the pure-joy Women’s March early this year. Happily those protesters are still out there in force: the Stand-Ups, the Indivisibles, the Occupiers, the MoversOn, the countless other groups all over the country. Young and old, male, female, gay, straight, black, brown, white, they embody that same Women’s March spirit of ebullient hope.

And they are my hope for the future.

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 . .  .”

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 . . .”


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.

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.