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.”

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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.”

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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 . .  .”

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 . . .”

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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.

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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.

Vicente Fox. Has. Opinions

Vicente Fox is not shy with his opinions.

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Fox onstage

During a recent event at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club the former president of Mexico (2000-2006) shared his thoughts on border walls, immigration, the global economy and Donald Trump. None of these would be pleasing to Mr. Trump – nor would they come as any surprise, since the two men regularly tweet insults at each other.

In advance of a conversation with Commonwealth Club CEO Gloria Duffy, Fox strode onstage and entertained his audience – which seemed not to include many Trump supporters – with a 30-minute, statistics-filled, no-notes commentary on the world in general and U.S./Mexico relations in particular.

As to that latter, “After years of democracy, friendship and cooperation, your leader says ‘Wait a minute! We have to build a wall!’” This, Fox maintains, is a very bad idea. “You are perhaps shooting yourself with a gun in the foot. Attacking ourselves in a trade war? Crazy.” Fox suggests that successful relationships between neighbor countries are built on “love, compassion, diplomacy and democratic dialogue.” The trade war now seeming likely will benefit neither, he believes.Vicente Fox.2

And as to the wall? “It’s going to take 35 billion U.S. dollars to build the wall. With that $35 billion you can create 10 million jobs. China built a wall, at great sacrifice. Paid for it with their own money. To protect against the Mongols and the Manchu. What happened? China was invaded by the Mongols and the Manchu. Berlin? They built a wall to keep freedom out.” Fox is not enthusiastic about walls.

Immigration? “We don’t want any more invasions by gringos.” Fox suggests that the problem of illegal immigration into the U.S. might better be addressed by spending that $35 billion on “going to the heart of the problem, in Central America,” where desperate situations in more than a few countries are forcing desperate people to attempt to enter the U.S. through Mexico.

This writer lays no claim to expertise on Mexican politics or political history. (Two Mexican friends, when asked, allowed as how they felt Mr. Fox got very rich during his presidency but didn’t do a lot for their poor communities.) But former president Fox, movie-star handsome, charmingly funny and a man who thinks the world would be better off if women were in charge? What’s not to love?

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With Commonwealth Club CEO Gloria Duffy

Fox, in his Commonwealth Club appearance, referred more than once to the Dalai Lama’s assertion that the world belongs to humanity. “That means all 8 billion of us,” he says. (A tiny exaggeration, though checking the world population clock is both fascinating and scary.) Among Fox’s strongest current opinions is that his non-friend Donald Trump spends too much time talking about withdrawing his country from the world, protecting its citizens, building walls, making America great. Fox suggested to his San Francisco audience that he had a response to this:

 

“I have decided to name myself – humbly – head of a shadow government representing the world,” Vicente Fox quips, “to say to your president  — — —  ‘What about us??’”

Worth thinking about.

 

 

Immigrants, Refugees, Human Beings

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“It would just be like my life ending,” he said. He was an attractive 20-something with piercing black eyes and a neatly trimmed beard. “I was a Dreamer,” he added, “but now I just have nightmares. I’ve lived here since I was 8. I did really well in high school and am halfway through college. But I could be sent back to a country I hardly know, to a very dangerous situation. I’m afraid for my whole family.”

His name is Antonio, and he is an undocumented immigrant. He is one of at least 11 million people in the U.S. today who go to bed with the fear they might wake up to their worst nightmare, deportation. It’s a fear that will be multiplied many times over with installation of an administration that came to power with more than a little help from ripples of xenophobia.

Immigrants. Refugees. Migrants. Humans.

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Worldwide, well over sixty-five million people have been forced to flee their homes, with one source reporting that 24 people were displaced from their homes every day in 2015. By now, most of us have an overload of images in our heads – Syrian children fleeing war-torn cities, terrified people clinging to the sides of capsized boats, acres of tent cities housing human beings facing an unknown future.

Some hope for the hordes of migrants and refugees in Europe lies in the countries and organizations – UNICEF, Save the Children, other nonprofits – that provide shelter in the form of “temporary” camps. The people there, many of whom spend years of their lives simply existing, at least receive food and minimal care. But it’s hard not to consider how little the U.S. is doing (and how much less we’re likely to do in the coming years)

Among the organizations working to ease the burdens of undocumented immigrants on our own soil is the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity. Senior Program Director Rev. Deborah Lee was speaking of her group’s work at the interfaith event where Antonio told his own story.

“What is our unique role, as religious communities, and how can we put it into practice?” Lee asked. “Does our faith require us to provide sanctuary for those who feel threatened?”

The IMHI maintains the answer to that latter question is a loud Yes. “There is a growing need for faith communities to be a part of the (sanctuary) map,” she says, “which already includes college campuses and cities around the country – responding to God’s law of offering protection to the vulnerable.”

Her organization, Lee explains, hopes to enlist one (or more) “sanctuary congregations” in cities across the U.S. where someone facing final deportation orders can find protection. There are also migrant families arriving in the San Francisco Bay area, Lee says, “who are seeking protection from deportation and applying for asylum, but who are without official refugee status and resettlement services.” For these, IMHI seeks congregations that can provide either support or hospitality housing.

Welcome.many languages

The idea of sixty-five million+ people forced to flee their homes looks like a tragedy too big to consider. But listening to Deborah Lee talk about how every human being is sacred, or having coffee with Antonio, puts a face on possibility.

Russia — and Nuclear Arms Racing

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Russia occupies a soft spot in my heart.

It grew out of the boundless enthusiasm for everything Slavic exuded by my Russian-major college roommate – or may have been seeded earlier by the cloth-covered storybooks full of babushkas, snow-covered cottages and deep forests that I so loved as a child. It expanded through and beyond the one time I was lucky enough to visit the country. I love the vastness of its countryside, the majesty of its ancient cathedrals, the intriguing complexity of its history, the wonder of its literature, the no-nonsense hospitality of its people.

I especially love every single one of those non-English-speaking Russians who helped me find the Dostoesvsky Museum in St. Petersberg one day, as I wandered a very long boulevard, counting canals, clutching my map and repeatedly smiling at perfect strangers, pointing to the spot and saying “Dostoevsky Musee?” More than a dozen of them patiently took turns guiding me along. The last took me by the arm and walked me several blocks and down the steps to the obscure doorway through which I entered the last apartment inhabited by one of my literary heroes. (I would never have found it!)

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Many friends and strangers across the U.S. share this affection. Much travelled scientist/author Jo Anne Valentine Simson writes in her small, lovely new book Russia Revisited: Come Take a Tour with Me that it “is one of my favorite countries in the world – huge and beautiful, with a complex and tortured history and a culture to match.”

But we do not love Mr. Putin. From this vantage point, he is among a handful of dangerous tyrants determined to centralize power and increasingly restrict the freedom of ordinary citizens. Simson puts it this way: “Unfortunately, in 2016 the political power seems to be devolving once again into a form of aristocracy, with Vladimir Putin behaving like an autocrat.”

We also don’t like the prospect of nuclear annihilation. Or another dangerous arms race destined to increase the supply of nuclear weapons in the U.S., Russia and who knows where else. Which is why we find the “bring it on” tweets of our president-elect more than a little scary.

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by Snoron.com

According to the good people of Ploughshares Fund, there are currently 15,375 nuclear weapons held by nine countries. The U.S. and Russia have 93 percent of them. That means each of us already has enough nukes to destroy the planet several times over. A small dispute between Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin, whom our president-elect admires but seems eager to challenge, could unleash a few and end life as we know it on this fragile planet.

A little less trash-tweeting and a little less talk about building nuclear stockpiles would be a nice Happy New Year gift for Russians and Americans alike.

Making All Knowledge Available to All? For Free? Believe It

Universal Access to All Knowledge. In other words, let’s gather up and digitize everything on the internet, and offer it to everyone on the planet. For free. Every book in every library, every website, movie – oh, and throw in music: vinyl records, CDs. In as many languages as possible.

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Some people were doubtful this could be done. But then, they probably didn’t know Brewster Kahle. Kahle, according to his Wikipedia page, is an American computer engineer, Internet entrepreneur and internet activist. And perhaps foremost, he is an advocate of universal access to all knowledge – to which end he founded the Internet Archive in 1996.

The Archive, consisting of a few billion items – it could be a few trillion by this writing – is now a non-profit library recognized by the Library of Congress. If you’re a human being with a digital device you can access anything within its collections. These are grouped within recognizable categories like ‘Old Time Radio,’ ‘Iraq War’ or ‘Television,’ and enigmatic other categories like ‘Electric Sheep’ and ‘Netlabels.’

This writer, whose left brain is minuscule, was only dimly aware of the Archive, despite the fact that some years ago it purchased, for its headquarters, a former Christian Science Church building in San Francisco which I pass every few days. But when Kahle’s wife Mary Austin, co-founder of San Francisco Center for the Book and someone (decidedly right/left brained) I am proud to call a friend, insisted I attend the 20th anniversary celebration not long ago, it seemed time to peek into it all.

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A few hundred friends and supporters turned out for the celebration, stopping by the taco truck at the front steps and going from there to stations offering demonstrations of archived music and video games, planetary digitizations, scanners that put books onto digital shelves in a matter of moments. Many of the Archive employees who work from areas around the globe – this writer talked at length with a sharp young lady from Toronto – were on hand to help explain things, and enjoy the reunion. The Wayback Machine (more than 279 billion web pages saved over time) was a crowd favorite, as was the Live Music archive (6,991 collections: rock, blues, classics, big band . . .) Some of those last were comprehensible to this reporter; other areas where the beeps and blinks of giant servers and assorted machines were connecting us all to the digital universe – well, what can I say?archive-scanner

But I have my library card! Open Library: We lend e-books worldwide for free. You can get one for yourself. Open Library has over a million ebook titles.

You might also want to support this ambitious undertaking and its latest safeguard project: creating a copy of Internet Archive’s digital collections in another country. Kahle and friends are building the Internet Archive of Canada “because lots of copies keeps stuff.” In other words, one more assurance of universal access to all knowledge. Free. And private. Internet Archive does not accept ads (which could track your behavior) or collect your IP address.archive-planets

Fact-check it out.

Nuclear-free World? Possibly. Some Day

Aaron Lobel (r) and Philip Yun at Ploughshares event

Aaron Lobel (r) and Philip Yun at Ploughshares event

Ploughshares Fund supporters – Americans committed to reducing nuclear stockpiles, preventing new nuclear states, and increasing global security – recently got some encouraging words from a few of those on the front lines. Not that the goal of a nuclear-weapons-free world is near, but that it’s a lot closer than 35 years ago.

It was 35 years ago that Ploughshares founder Sally Lilienthal, a 62-year-old sculptor, human rights activist, mother and wife, gathered a few friends in her San Francisco living room to discuss what could be done to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons here and abroad. This was the year (1981) when Ronal Reagan unveiled a “strategic modernization program” which called for – among other things nuclear – thousands of additional warheads, a significant increase in bomber forces, including 100 B-lBs and the development of stealth bombers, a new land-based 10-warhead strategic missile (the MX), and new intermediate-range missile deployments in Europe. In addition, he proposed deploying more than 3,000 air-launched cruise missiles on bombers.

There may not be a lot of peace on earth today, but there are far fewer nuclear threats to that eventual possibility and Ploughshares Fund is one key reason why.

A group of longtime Ploughshares supporters gathered recently in San Francisco to hear about ongoing work in South Asia, where India and Pakistan have a combined total of 250 nuclear weapons at the ready – enough to create a catastrophe in the area and long-term distress across the planet if that conflict were to escalate. America Abroad Media, a Ploughshares grantee, is working to prevent such a catastrophe.

Nuclear weapons test

Nuclear weapons test

AAM founder and president Aaron Lobel was interviewed by Ploughshares Executive Director and COO Philip Yun on how media fits into the complex efforts to reduce global conflict, specifically in South Asia. “You can go back to the origins of Pakistan as a Muslim state,” Lobel says, “and the question of whether India even recognizes Pakistan’s legitimacy” to get a picture of the enormity of the problem. But media in the area gets large audiences and builds human bonds. AAM works through public radio, international town halls, documentary and news programming and other avenues to build a civil society.

“We continue to believe that a civil society ultimately makes a difference,” Lobel says; “media is just one part of it.” And can such a society exist, and make a difference, in areas like South Asia today? “Absolutely yes,” says Lobel. “The lawyers’ movement in Pakistan did make a difference; and there are people in the civil society (there) involved in moving the ball forward.”

Lobel spoke at length of AAM’s work in Afghanistan, where its media following included the president of the country for at least one program. “If the president watched,” one questioner asked, “how many others actually saw the program?” “A lot,” says Lobel. “People gather around a satellite TV in the villages – this is not like having dozens of channels and TV sets in every home.”  world-peace

Ploughshares president Joseph Cirincione addressed the gathering on the broader issues, and the global outlook today. “In order for these guys (countries with smaller nuclear stockpiles) to give up nuclear weapons” Cirincione says, “they’re going to have to see the big guys doing it – and that’s not happening. We have to address the underlying issues (such as) water issues and religious issues. We also have to address the fundamental distrust. It’s important to recognize the power of media in addressing these issues to create a more peaceful world.” (“We fund the smartest people,” Yun adds, “with the best ideas.”)

Despite the discouraging prospects for global peace just now, Cirincione had a few nuggets of good news for the Ploughshares supporters:

“There were 70,000 nuclear weapons when we started,” he said; “there are 15,000 now. I believe the Iran nuclear deal has prevented war there for a generation. We can continue to work to make things better.”