On Preventing the Worst from Happening

The following is offered as a very small and personal side commentary, on the occasion of the leaders of the U.S. and North Korea meeting in Singapore.

Have you met the Ploughshares Fund? If you’re not anxious to see the planet blown away in a thermonuclear flash, the Ploughshares folks are good people to know.

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by Snoron.com

Ploughshares was founded in 1981 by the indomitable sculptor/activist Sally Lilienthal, who was also a friend of my good husband. When I met her, soon after arriving in San Francisco in 1992, I became an instant fan.

1981 was the height of the Cold War, and Russia and the U.S. were on the brink of thermonuclear confrontation – each having enough nuclear weapons to obliterate this beautiful planet. Ploughshares set about the work of reducing those dangerous threats and has been remarkably successful. Stockpiles have been dramatically reduced – we’re down from the nearly 55,000 worldwide total in 1980 to the current figure of approximately 15,000. Over 90% are in the US and Russia; the rest are in China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan and the United Kingdom. There may be fewer nuclear weapons, but there are plenty around to destroy life as we know it.

Which is why the world watched with some apprehension as two of perhaps the most erratic and unpredictable leaders of all time met to – we hope – find a way to avoid nuclear war.

Fran w Joe Cirincione 6.4.18

With Joe Cirincione

I was privileged to hear Ploughshares Fund President Joe Cirincione and Executive Director/Chief Operating Officer Philip Yun talk about the situation in general and North Korea in particular recently with a group of longtime supporters.

“We have a very simple philosophy,” Cirincione says: “prevent the worst from happening.” Re North Korea and the recent summit, “There might be some surprises. Trump could stumble into a good deal.” Pointing out that “we support policies, not presidents,” he said Donald Trump “could give North Korea something that Democratic presidents could not.”

This group, progressives to the core, swallowed hard. If you want not to see the planet wiped out in a thermonuclear frenzy, keeping North Korea from starting such an event trumps all distaste for our president.

Yun offered some history lessons and insight; he is a scholar of Korean affairs who has long been involved in U.S./N.Korea negotiations. “The North Koreans like symmetry,” he said. Any movement toward denuclearization “is going to have to be phased. (But) there are a lot of moving parts that could make us safer right now.”

Those were just several snippets of a conversation that was wide-ranging and in many ways encouraging. The fact that the Ploughshares people, and the people with organizations it funds, are working every day to keep the worst from happening is encouragement enough for now.dove of peace

So this writer, who watches in horror the environmental destruction and loss of human rights going on every day thanks to the policies of our current administration, swallowed hard and wished Mr. Trump & Mr. Kim every success in avoiding a thermonuclear planetary disaster.

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.”

 

 

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.

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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.

Signs of Our Marching Times

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The March was intended to be about women’s rights – workplace rights, immigrant and minority rights, the right to make our own reproductive decisions, all those rights that suddenly seem threatened. It turned out to be a celebration of the spirit.

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It was hard to separate rights & purposes from our new president, and hard to ignore the mean-spiritedness that most marchers hope at least to diminish. But it turned out to be a celebration of everything he disdains.

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This writer has traditionally drawn the line at protest marching. In the past I’ve done talks, workshops, phone calls, emails, office visits and the occasional vigil; this year felt like it called for showing up. So along with several friends from the geezer house where I live, I struck out into the rainy San Francisco late afternoon along with a few hundred thousand others. Estimates vary, but we spilled into so many adjoining streets that 50,000 seems a minimal number.

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The signs say it all. Or a lot of it.

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If anyone’s spirits were dampened by the cold rain, you couldn’t tell. What you can tell, from the smiling faces among the umbrellas, is how it felt. Most of all, it was just heartening to be among all of the above, and among the many scattered signs saying “This Is What Democracy Looks Like.”

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Yossi Gurvitz on Flicker

A similar sign was photographed by Yossi Gurvitz in St. Paul’s Square during the Occupy London movement several years ago, a darker view of that phrase. But with enough joyful, celebratory gatherings such as those all around America on January 21, perhaps democracy will survive its current challenges — and look like government by the (sometimes jubilant) people.

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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.

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.

Men Against Women’s Rights

Lady justiceThere is something unnerving about the rush of Republican presidential candidates to go on record as standing firmly against women’s reproductive rights.

Addressing a recent gathering of the National Right to Life Committee – which itself stands firmly against reproductive rights for women; its sole concern is with the fetus – a handful of the leading Republican candidates tried to outdo each other in expressing their anti-women positions. This was before Wisconsin governor Scott Walker threw his hat into the ring with a stirring promise to work for “the unborn.” What Walker means is this: he has zero interest in the mothers of those “unborns;” but he welcomes the political support of anti-abortion forces.

And anti-abortion forces have a lot of political muscle. A sample of the comments being made by candidates seeking to capture it would include:

Jeb Bush, whose “moral absolutes” do not include a woman’s moral right to make her own reproductive decisions, points to the laws passed during his tenure as governor of Florida: the funding of adoption counseling – but not abortion counseling, banning late term abortion, and imposing medically unnecessary regulations on clinics offering abortion.

Rick Perry wanted the anti-abortion group to understand that when he was governor of Texas his record on denial of a woman’s right to choose was best of all. “That’s a fact,” he said. “We passed a parental notification law. I signed a parental consent law. I signed a sonogram law so mothers facing that agonizing choice can actually see.” Forcing parental involvement on very young women who often need to keep their decision private, and all women to view a medically irrelevant sonogram whether they wish to or not – these are the sources of Perry’s pride.

More recently, we have the ever-articulate Donald Trump entering the fray with the comment that “it really, really bothers me, the whole concept of abortion.” Trump’s interest in women, which is well-documented if problematic, does not extend to an interest in their right to make their own reproductive choices.

And lastly, Marco Rubio seeks to enter the White House because it “needs an occupant who values and prioritizes life.” Read: life of “the unborn.” If Rubio gave a fig for the lives of uncounted thousands of women put at risk by the restrictive laws he supports – his values and priorities might shift.

All of the above are men, without the vaguest notion of what it is like to be pregnant as a result of abuse, incest, assault or a multitude of other wrongs, or simply what it is like to be a woman denied control of her own body, her own most private and personal decision-making.

Such is presidential politics today.