Robert Reich is Optimistic

(A third & final report on the Lisbon End-of-Life conference will be coming around next week; I’m interrupting that sort-of series to write about hearing one of my heroes, Robert Reich.)

Robert Reich 4.24.18Robert Reich, a giant intellect who is slightly shorter than this 5’2” writer, took the stage at a recent sold-out Commonwealth Club event. “You can tell,” he quipped, “that Trump has really worn me down.” When the cheers and laughter subsided a little he added, “Last time I was here, wasn’t I about five foot ten?”

Reich, Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley and Senior Fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies, served as Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration and, among other accomplishments, has written fifteen books. His latest, The Common Good, was published earlier this year. In classic Reichian fashion it argues for a return to “moral imagination” and the common good, and leaves you hopeful. “We have never been a perfect union,” he writes at the end. “Our finest moments have been when we sought to become more perfect than we had been.”

Respect – remember that once-common element of the public discourse? – was Reich’s first talking point at the Commonwealth Club. He spoke of the days when legislators commonly had friends from the other side of the aisle, lamenting the current atmosphere that makes it virtually impossible for, say, a Democratic senator to socialize regularly with a Republican colleague. Reich dates this change to the time when Newt Gingrich, the hyper-partisan, combative Republican became Speaker of the House of Representatives in 1995. He told of entering his office while serving as Secretary of Labor to find a group of people going through his files, saying they had permission to do so. “What are they looking for,” he asked an aide. “They’re looking for anything,” the reply came, “that they can use to get you.”

As a child, Reich was diagnosed with a bone disorder commonly known as Fairbanks disease, which results in short stature. Because this often left him the target of bullies, he sought the protection of older boys – one of whom was Mickey Schwerner. When Schwerner and two others were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in 1964 for registering African-American voters,  Reich says he was motivated to “fight the bullies and to protect the powerless.”

Asked to name the one thing he feels is most critical today, Reich says it is “to get the money out of politics. Money distorts the process,” he says – in what might be considered a mild understatement. Reich also told his audience that “the best way of learning is to talk with people who disagree with you. It forces you to sharpen your argument. You listen to other points of view – and just possibly some of them are correct.”

Robert Reich 4.24.18

Author, fan & new book

The anger he saw in places like Toledo and Kansas City when he was Secretary of Labor Reich says is still very much there. “People are working harder and harder, and getting nowhere.” Even as we bailed out Wall Street, he adds, people are saying “the game is rigged, and it’s rigged against us.” When he visited those same cities – and others like them – prior to the 2016 elections, Reich was surprised to hear many people say they planned to vote for either Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump. “How can you even say those two names in the same sentence?” he asked. “And they would reply, ‘Either one will shake things up.’”

But despite being worn down by the present administration, Reich proclaims that he is optimistic.  “It’s when we are losing something,” he says, “that we recognize its value. People are recognizing their responsibility is not just to vote but to be involved. And secondly, I look at my students, and students from Parkland and Stoneman Douglass high schools (which drew audience applause.) They are committed, engaged, idealistic and determined. There are so many people determined to save our democracy.”

“Your engagement and involvement,” he said to a receptive and enthusiastically pro-Robert Reich audience, “is critically important.”

 

 

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.

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.