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 . .  .”

Trump’s first 100 days of chaos

“We only seek to find the truth and set it free,” reads the slogan of the nonpartisan public affairs forum, San Francisco-based Commonwealth Club. Before the Club moved to temporary headquarters, en route to its brand new offices which are set to open sometime this year, I always loved riding the elevator to the meeting rooms – and reading that message in large script on the entry wall.

Today, finding the truth is a tall order.

Warning: This is a political column. Despite my avowed intention to stay out of politics until there is at least a ray of hope somewhere, politics just won’t go away.

cclub-panel-3-13-17

Recently the Commonwealth Club hosted a program titled “Trump’s First 100 Days: Part One.” Panelists included two women: Zahra Billoo, Executive Director of the SF Bay Area Council on American-Islamic Relations (a US-born citizen); and retired CA Supreme Court Judge LaDoris Hazzard Cordell, Chair, Santa Clara Jail Commission (and the great-granddaughter of slaves, she mentioned at one point.) They were two impressive citizens. This writer would have been happy to spend an hour listening to their understandings and perspectives.

Also on the panel were two white male gentlemen who dominated (unless the Moderator intervened) the conversation: Steven Fish, Professor of Political Science, University of California Berkeley, and Sean Walsh, GOP Political Strategist.

Riding herd on this well-informed, and certainly passionate about their positions, quartet was Scott Shafer, Senior Editor, California Politics & Government, KQED – which is partnering with the Commonwealth Club on these programs.

If I were covering this extremely interesting event for a non-fake news outlet, it could be effectively done in about 10,000 words. Instead, I offer here the excerpted (wildly condensed)  responses each panelist had to Shafer’s opening question: In this bizarre beginning – it was 38 days in when this program aired – to the Trump presidency, “what jumps out at you?”

Steven Fish: “It is not clear that the president of the United States is completely loyal to his own country, or the ideals of democracy.”

Judge Cordell: “We should be talking about the first 100 lies.” (She expounded on that at some length, and with clear, concise accuracy, ticking off the lie and the truth.)

Samara Billoo: “There is a sense of fear in my community,” spurred by “racist, misogynistic, homophobic, Islamophobic” messages coming from the White House and its Republican allies.

Sean Walsh: “He does not have his advisers, transition people, in place. He (our president) is in the process of putting his administration in place.”

Shafer: “Chaos.”

It’s going to be a long 100 days, and then some.

Anna Quindlen on form & feminism

Anna Quindlen (left) & Kelly Corrigan

Anna Quindlen (left) & Kelly Corrigan

Anna Quindlen, on tour with her new novel Miller’s Valley, sat down for a rollicking interview with author Kelly Corrigan recently at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club. Within an hour they had traded profound thoughts and raucous asides – some printable and some not – on topics ranging from literary form to family histories to feminism, from death & dying to the prosecution of rapists.

A few random excerpts:

Re Miller’s Valley – which reviewers have described as “a quintessential small town story about a family you will never forget” – Quindlen said she felt early on that she wanted it to be written in the first person (Mimi, who grows from an 11-year-old into her sixties in the book, is the narrator) because she wanted to leave “some ambiguity at the end, and that’s only possible with a first person narrator. There is a kind of intimacy you can only develop through the first person.”

On how much of Miller’s Valley – and her seven earlier novels – is taken from her own life: “When I was a newspaper reporter people thought I made things up. Now I make things up and people think they’re real.”

On families, literary and otherwise: Corrigan, noting Quindlen’s untroubled childhood and long-lasting, happy marriage, asked if “people who have not lived through deep dysfunction” can still produce great writing. “I had a happy childhood,”Quindlen responded, “but I remember always feeling that there was no place for me in the world.” Then she listed three things that have made her the (highly acclaimed) writer she is: her mother’s illness and death – Quindlen, the eldest of five siblings, left college in her sophomore year to care for her cancer-stricken mother – the “good luck to be a street reporter in New York City,” and being a mom to her three now-grown children.

Corrigan followed with a family tale of her own. After calling her mother to tell her about an award just received, Corrigan was dismayed by her mother’s being “not very impressed.” So after a few moments of disappointment she called back to find out why. Her mother said, “I’m glad you called back. I’m jealous.” To which Quindlen added, “We all said, ‘I don’t want the kind of life my mother had.’”

Quindlen 4.11.16

On memoir (both authors have produced well-received memoirs) v fiction: “In memoirs there is stuff you can’t talk about,” Corrigan commented, “like jealousies, or sex with your husband. But in fiction we can be more honest about what hangs us up.”

“How’s feminism going?” Corrigan asked toward the end of the conversation. “We (feminists) are, like God, everywhere,” Quindlen replied. Concerning one major issue of the feminist movement, Corrigan mentioned data that “reported rapes are up.” Possibly, she added, because for so long rapes went unreported.” But Quindlen noted ruefully that “fairly recently, in New York, you couldn’t prosecute without a third party witness. “Someone had to walk in during the event, preferably a nun or a policeman.”

Asked to name her favorite rising feminist, Quiundlen paused only briefly before saying “Lena Dunham. She immediately used her fame to help others. Every book event she does is tied to the local Planned Parenthood.” Citing the oft-repeated feminist mantra Learn, Earn, Return, Quindlen said Dunham “is doing all three at the same time.” And Quindlen couldn’t resist getting in a plug for another woman she admires, “Hillary Rodham, as I like to call her, not using her slave name – is best qualified, and will make a great President.”

 

Dying On Your Own Terms

Mileva Lewis with the author

Mileva Lewis with the author

Do Not Resuscitate? Allow Natural Death? Do everything to keep me alive? Whatever happens, I don’t want tubes down my throat! Keep me out of Intensive Care Units!

End-of-life decision-making gets tougher every day.

Dying – that straightforward, universal human experience – now often involves a bewildering assortment of choices and decisions. And most of us are poorly prepared. We have core values (and usually more than a few fears and family histories) that come into play in making end-of –life choices, but too many of us are caught unawares.

At a recent Commonwealth Club of California event Mileva Saulo Lewis, EdD, RN, used a “values history” approach to explain how these difficult decisions are made, and to help audience members walk through the process. “Values history” translates: What matters to you? Why? It was developed at the Center for Medical Ethics and Mediation in San Diego.

“Values,” Lewis explains, “are the criteria by which you make decisions.” They might be rooted in your home and family, your faith community, college or university, workplace or elsewhere, but one’s values underlie all decision-making. And the reason all this matters today, especially with end-of-life decisions, is that medicine and technology have made seismic shifts over the past half century.

Lewis spoke of how the patient/physician relationship, one of these shifts, has moved from the paternalistic, “father knows best” model to what is now often termed “patient-centered” care – shared decision-making. This new model requires patients not only to be well informed, but also to be proactive and to make their values known.

The goals of medicine, Lewis explains, include curing disease, relieving symptoms and suffering, and preventing untimely death. The patient’s part is to make sure the healthcare provider explains and counsels adequately, and respects the patient’s expressed wishes. Ideally, decisions will be made in concert.

Lewis outlined some of the factors to consider in end-of-life decision-making such as how important to you is independence, being able to communicate with others, being pain-free and other end-of-life circumstances that have been frequently discussed in this space. She suggested one tool that has not been mentioned here, and is an excellent aid: the Ottawa Personal Decision Guide. However you make (and record) your personal choices, she stresses the importance of thinking through your values, writing down your wishes and – most important of all – talking it all over with friends, family members and your healthcare provider.

“Know yourself,” Mileva Lewis says. “Communicate. Trust yourself, and your healthcare provider. And be proactive.”

Heeding Lewis’ advice can help protect your values, and insure that your end-of-life wishes are respected.

Presidential Politics & P. J. O’Rourke

O'Rourke at CClub

P. J. O’Rourke

Journalist/satirist P.J. O’Rourke breezed through San Francisco on a recent book tour for his weighty new book (640-page Thrown Under the Omnibus) and left no presidential candidate un-skewered.

O’Rourke opened with a list of candidates – “Clinton, Bush, Fiorina, Sanders, Rubio, Cruz, Christie, O’Malley, and Trump. That’s not a list of presidential candidates. That’s the worst law firm in the world.” And from that summary he plunged into a commentary on the candidates themselves:

Hillary Clinton “retains her iron grip on second place. Whoever’s in first place is so far out we don’t know who it is yet. Hillary carries more baggage than the Boeing she used as Secretary of State to visit every country that later blew up in her face. On the upside, she’s familiar with the White House. She knows where the extra toilet paper is stored and where the spare key to the nuke-missile launch briefcase is hidden.”

Bernie Sanders? “Bernie is a socialist. He says so himself. Let me give you the dictionary definition of ‘socialist.’ A socialist is somebody who will take your flat-screen TV and give it to a family of meth addicts in the backwoods of Vermont. Bernie says he wants to make America more like Europe. Great idea. Europe has had a swell track record for 100 years now. Make America more like Europe? Where can we even go to get all the Nazis and Commies and 90 million dead people that it would take to make America more like Europe?

Carly Fiorina – “If she runs America like she ran Hewlett-Packard, it’d be great as long as you shorted the stock. H-P stock fell 65% between July, 1999 and February, 2005. I can forgive Carly, but my Keogh Plan never will.

Jeb Bush has everything. He’s young (for a Republican), a Phi Beta Kappa, a successful businessman, and a two-term governor of Florida – where balloting incompetence and corruption are vital to the GOP. Jeb Bush has just one problem, the name problem. But don’t worry, Jeb is all set to legally change his name to George Herbert Walker Bush. Everybody likes him… and he only served one term, so he’s constitutionally eligible to run again.”

Ben Carson is “doing okay unless you’re one of the fact-checkers. He’s a genius brain surgeon. I’m saying please quit running for president and get back to work because we need you. Maybe he could fix George W and Jeb Bush’s conjoined heads.”

Rand Paul? “Rand thinks the government should go by the rule ‘Mind your own business and keep your hands to yourself.’ I call it the Hillary and Bill Clinton principle: ‘Hillary, mind your own business; and Bill, keep your hands to yourself.’ But Rand Paul isn’t a Republican, he’s a Libertarian. His libertarianism appeals to those who consider themselves ‘fiscal conservatives and social liberals.’ This means they want to get high and have sex while saving money; and who doesn’t? But what candidate’s going to admit that in public?

Marco Rubio’s “got kids; I love kids. But he’s got to stop it with the abortion stuff. Really, Republicans, don’t make it illegal, make it retroactive. A kid gets to be 25 – zap.”

Personally, O’Rourke says he supports Donald Trump, because of something the great political satirist H.L. Mencken once said, “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”

Trump’s “chief goal is to be on TV,” O’Rourke says. “As president he can be on TV 24/7. Plus, he can yell ‘You’re fired!’ all he wants. Trump will grow the American economy the way he grew his own, with bad debt, bad debt and more bad debt. Trump has ‘restructured’ $3.5 billion in business debt and $900 million in personal debt; ‘restructured’ means he didn’t pay it. We Americans know a leader when we see one. Trump’s foreign policy will be to build hundreds of Trump casinos, Trump hotels and Trump resorts in Moscow, Beijing, Tehran, Raqqa, Kandahar and the Gaza Strip. Then all of them will go bankrupt the way Trump Taj Mahal, Trump Plaza Hotel and Trump Entertainment Resorts did. Hell, it might just work.”

O'Rourke & Caen

O’Rourke with Melissa Caen

O’Rourke delivered these – and other – political opinions at a Commonwealth Club of California event moderated by Melissa Caen. Caen, a lawyer best known as an astute but light-hearted columnist and TV commentator, said by way of introduction that she couldn’t believe her luck in being asked to interview O’Rourke. In her writing, she said, she had for years “shamelessly stolen” from his satiric observations. Writers today will find it easier to do that, with the release of Thrown Under the Omnibus, a nearly three-pound anthology of O’Rourke’s “funniest, most outrageous, most controversial and most loved pieces.” Copies were selling briskly after the Commonwealth Club talk.

David Brock: Hillary’s the one

David Brock 10.12.15

David Brock in San Francisco 10.12.15

If you don’t believe there’s a right wing conspiracy poised to take over the U.S. you haven’t been listening to David Brock.

Not everybody does listen to David Brock, author/journalist, self-described “former right-wing hit man” and founder, in 2004, of Media Matters for America; but his most recent book, Killing the Messenger: The Right-Wing Plot to Derail Hillary and Hijack Your Government has definitely caught many new ears. Including a largely progressive audience (judging from comments and questions) at the Commonwealth Club of California who listened recently with curiosity and interest. Brock, swinging through San Francisco on a nationwide book tour, fielded questions after his talk in a session moderated by University of San Francisco Professor of Politics and Director of African-American Studies James Taylor.

Brock speaks with the fervor of a committed activist and the conviction of a political insider, having gone from right wing hit man to Democratic operative. “One move in the Republican playbook,” he says, “is to do everything to cause dissension among Democrats.” To this end the Republican opposition is promoting the notion that Hillary (Clinton; Brock uses the candidate’s first name for simplicity) is out of touch. . . “(and) the Republicans are salivating over the bloodbath.”

Brock’s first book, The Real Anita Hill was a defense of Clarence Thomas against her accusations – and a national sensation when it was released in the spring of 1993. “When a competitive book (Strange Justice: the Selling of Clarence Thomas by Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson; November, 1994) came out with new facts, I went back and asked (my sources) and they said essentially that they didn’t believe that guy. I take responsibility, but I was sold a bill of goods.” In 2002 Brock published Blinded by the Right: The Conscience of an Ex-Conservative, “a sort of confessional. When I fell out with the conservatives,” he added, “I lost all of my friends – so I got a dog.”

The book tour focus, though, was strictly on Hillary. “Hillary isn’t moving toward progressive,” Brock maintains, “she has always been there. On raising income levels, strengthening the safety net, paid sick leave, addressing climate change, addressing mental health and substance abuse issues. . . We don’t have to wonder if she’ll walk the walk, she’s been walking the walk. . .”

In the Commonwealth Club audience were more than a few who had earlier chanted “Run, Bernie run!” when another candidate dropped by, but Brock got a rousing applause. The left, it seems, is substantially more considerate than the right.

Arne Duncan on education — and inequity, and injustice

Arne Duncan

Arne Duncan

Arne Duncan sounds like a man who is ready to get out of Washington.

At a recent Commonwealth Club of California program moderated by EdSource editor-at-large John Fensterwald, Duncan spoke briefly about educational gains made during his seven year term as U.S. Secretary of Education – but repeatedly and at length about the inequities and injustices that remain across the country. His frustration is palpable.

All those debates about Common Core, testing, over-testing? Sideline arguments. “All we can do at the federal level,” Duncan says, “is fight for equity, excellence and innovation. Take politics out of it. Figure out how to get better faster. The school-to-prison pipeline is real; suspensions and expulsions lead to crime.” And don’t even get Arne Duncan started on gun violence.

“The arc of the moral universe is long,” the Secretary quoted Martin Luther King Jr. as saying, “but it bends toward justice.”

Duncan clearly believes justice is not happening. “It doesn’t bend by itself,” he says, “or fast enough. The fight is not just about education. It’s about increasing social mobility, about keeping good jobs in our economy. From the standpoint of social justice, it’s about economics, and about keeping kids alive.”

Where is the arc not bending? “With early childhood education. The average child living in poverty starts kindergarten one year behind.” With gun violence, which Duncan repeatedly spoke of as closely tied to schools. “There have been more gun deaths since 1970 than in all of our wars combined. And there are too many instances in which the quality of education depends on where you live.”

Listing three top priorities he believes must be addressed, Duncan cites early childhood education as number one. He sees no reason why it can’t be done. “In the Netherlands, every four-year-old is in kindergarten, and they are working toward extending early childhood education to three-year-olds.” Second: “Great teachers matter. In South Korea, teachers are ‘Nation Builders.’ A teacher in North Carolina is giving blood to help pay the bills.” (Speaking of injustice and inequity.) And third: “How do we build demand for great schools, great teachers particularly in poor communities? How do we make it a badge of honor for teachers and principals to go where the need is greatest?”

Duncan cites the fact that in Massachusetts, the nation’s top state for education, 30% of all high school graduates take remedial classes to get into college. The percentage goes far higher in other states. “Do we want to keep doing that or not? And it is unbelievable to me that we don’t take action to end gun violence.”

Asked what he’d like to have as his legacy, Duncan fired back, “It’s not about me. We have a long way to go, and we must accelerate the pace of change.”

With that, Duncan stepped down from the stage. One gets the very strong impression – hearing him also say that being Secretary of Education was never something he aspired to, but he took the job because of his great admiration for Barack Obama – that he is more than happy to have stepped down from the national stage and headed back home to Chicago.