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.

 

 

 

Prayer, Peace & Song to Start the Day

world-peaceOK, this is San Francisco: love and peace reign. But it’s also Thanksgiving: gratitude and community. Celebrations of love, peace, gratitude and community are taking place not just on the left coast but across the country, as we begin to exhale after a bitterly troubled few months. Exhalation in community can be a great way to start the day.

“Hope,” said one speaker at the recent Interfaith Thanksgiving Prayer Breakfast, “is right there where it’s always been, between faith and love.” There was plenty of all three. Some 385 early-risers were gathered for the event, sponsored by the San Francisco Interfaith Council and billed as “The Soul of the City: Faith and Social Justice in San Francisco.”

Marsha Attie

Marsha Attie

It all began with the sounding of a Buddhist Ceremonial In Kin Bell – a successful attempt to bring a little quietude into the amiable masses – followed by Pacifica Institute’s Fatih Ferdi Ates’ recitation of the Muslim Call to Prayer, in a voice that certainly reaches to the heavens. Brahma Kumaris Sr. Sukanya Belsare read the interfaith statement of the sponsoring SFIC, which is read at all board meetings and events and says, in effect, “Whatever your faith or faith tradition, it’s okay. We’re here to learn, and understand.”

Led by Cantor Marsha Attie of Congregation Emanu-El, the crowd then launched into a rousing rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”

Throughout the two-hour scrambled-eggs-&-mixed-fruit breakfast there were songs, honors, laughs and commentaries. Not to mention prayers in virtually every known faith tradition. A few highlights are encapsulated below:

SFIC Executive Director Michael Pappas: “The interfaith community will always stand for human rights, social justice and equality for all.”

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee (to a standing ovation): “San Francisco will remain a sanctuary city.”

Kat Taylor & Tom Steyer

Kat Taylor & Tom Steyer

Rt. Rev. Marc Andrus, Bishop, Episcopal Diocese of California, introducing event honorees Kat Taylor and Tom Steyer to the audience and audience to the honorees (loosely paraphrased): “Bringing the mind effectively into the heart to do good works can result in reverence, compassion, forgiveness and courage.” Andrus then did a warm-up exercise, reciting a litany of actions such as feeding the hungry, protecting the oppressed and helping the poor, to an enthusiastic audience response of “We’re Still In!”

Honoree Tom Steyer, Founder and President, NextGen Climate (and major donor to progressive political causes – San Francisco is still San Francisco): “Troubled times give everyone a chance to lead a meaningful life. (A) challenge is to embrace our full humanity. The. U.S. didn’t start with full humanity for everyone.” Steyer then deferred to the co-honoree, his wife Kat Taylor, Co-Founder and Co-CEO, Beneficial State Bank and a ferocious advocate for changing the food and banking systems for good through business models and philanthropy.

Mark Leno

Mark Leno

Honoree Taylor: “You knew I would sing” – launching into the Christian hymn standard “Here I Am, Lord,” with several hundred of the guests joining in.

Presented a proclamation by SFIC Board Chair G. L. Hodge – who said he relished the opportunity, since the recipient was famous for issuing proclamations himself, termed-out California State Senator Mark Leno: “I recognize this frame, from something I sent earlier. But I always say, ‘Reuse, Recycle, Re-elect.’”

Nancy Pelosi

Nancy Pelosi

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, after leading the crowd in reciting “The Prayer of St. Francis”: “Ministering to God’s creation is an act of worship. We must affirm the dignity and worth of every person, and we all have to be instruments of God’s peace.”

 

 

 

Immigrants? Which immigrants? – – – – An Ohlone comments, & Nancy Pelosi adds a few words at interfaith gathering

peace dove mosaic

Native American vestments draped over his 2015 business suit, Ohlone descendant Andrew Galvan, whose ancestral lands encompass the San Francisco Bay area, smiled broadly at the 400+ paying guests at a recent event in San Francisco. The attendees had just responded to queries about when their ancestors first emigrated to the U.S.: some in the 21st century, most in the 20th century, a few in the 19th, 18th or 17th.

“My ancestors,” Galvan observed, “apparently welcomed all of you.” Coming at a time of crisis and dissension over new immigrants seeking welcome in these old lands, the message was not lost on anyone.

The occasion was the 18th Annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Prayer Breakfast hosted by the San Francisco Interfaith Council. Some 800 churches, synagogues, mosques and other faith communities are part of the SFIC. Months before refugees and immigration became a global humanitarian crisis and a U.S. political tinderbox, plans were underway for this year’s breakfast. Its theme? “Faith and Sanctuary: There Are No Strangers.”

Galvan explained that his ancestors acknowledged a Grandfather creator-god – who worked in cooperation with Grandmother Earth. He then led prayers of thanksgiving, with explanations, to the four directions:

To the East, “where the new day begins and we have the opportunity to begin again and again.”

American Indian Movement Flag

To the South, “where the warm winds come from, as well as our brother the fire. Grandfather, we ask you to control and contain our brother the fire.”

To the West, “where brother sun sets and the moon and stars are in control; and we enter dreamland. Grandfather, protect the children who sleep and keep us clear of nightmares. Teach us to live right that we may die right.” And :

To the North, “where are the snow-capped mountaintops. Grandfather, thank you for our sister water. We thank and praise you for the gifts of Nature.”

There were other explanatory elements, but most notable, for the multi-ethnic group representative of so many contemporary religions, was the business of cooperation among all those Grandfathers and Grandmothers, brothers and sisters.

Toward the end of the program former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi arrived, slightly late, offering as her apology the fact that she had been outside on her cellphone (“You could probably hear me . . .”) with colleagues in Washington threatening to shut down the government unless we stop admitting refugees. “These children,” Pelosi said with no attempt to control her wrath. “Fleeing war and unimaginable Pelosi at SFIC 11.23.15horrors.” She went on to cite facts about the current refugee population – such as that well over one-third are children, about one-half are women, a large percentage are elderly – and only two percent are in the category (younger, male) that could, though it’s unlikely, constitute a threat. “And if you are in the U.S. today,” Pelosi continued, “and you are a young male on a terrorist watch list, you can walk into almost any gun store and walk out with the weapon of your choice.”

At one largely Presbyterian table (where a few What Would Jesus Do? comments had been made about the current U.S. debate,) someone remarked, “Grandfather and Grandmother are among the refugees. And I think the Great Spirit is not pleased.”

My Problem With the Pope

Pope Francis

Pope Francis

Pope Francis the Good is one truly uplifting presence on the world stage. Millions of us welcome and rejoice over his messages about helping those less fortunate, building tolerance and seeking justice – all goals that could use reinforcing in almost every corner of this turbulent planet. Even for us Protestants, it’s a good time to share the name Frances, by whatever spelling.

But the pope and I have a small disagreement.

Should a woman have control of her own body? Not if it contains an embryo, or if she might want to prevent it from growing an embryo, according to the pope.

Abortion? Absolutely not, says the pope. Being a forgiving sort, he has empowered more priests to “forgive” women who have chosen to have abortions and would like to continue practicing their Catholic faith. But once conception occurs – no matter that it’s the result of rape, incest, abuse or a limitless range of very personal issues – the woman must be shoved aside and all focus be on bringing that unwanted fetus into a life of questionable care. And any woman who has made this very personal decision must “seek forgiveness”?

This writer does not profess to be a Biblical scholar, but I have not found, or ever had anyone point out, anywhere in the good book that it says Thou Shalt Not Abort. In all the centuries of mostly men who wrote and have subsequently interpreted the Bible, somehow they – including centuries of presumably celibate priests – have simply opted to deprive women of all reproductive freedom. And today they would still deny a woman’s right to exercise free will.

But it is on the issue of contraception that the pope’s messages ring false, and harsh. One cannot fight poverty and simultaneously demand that poor women bear more unwanted children. If one so adamantly opposes abortion, how can one ignore the fact that adequate contraception would prevent millions of unintended pregnancies – and reduce abortions exponentially?

According to a recent New York Times editorial, a “2014 poll of 12,000 Catholics in 12 countries found that 78 percent supported contraception; in Spain, France, Columbia, Brazil and the pope’s native Argentina, more than 90 percent supported its use.”

The Guttmacher Institute, quoted in the same Times editorial, reports that some 225 million women who want to avoid unintended pregnancies do not use (often cannot access) reliable contraception. “Providing them with contraception would prevent 52 million unintended pregnancies, 14 million unsafe abortions and 70,000 maternal deaths a year.” Even if you don’t care about the maternal deaths – as is clear with “Pro-Lifer’s” everywhere – how does it not make sense to prevent the 52 million unintended pregnancies and 14 million unsafe abortions?

Could someone please ask the good pope to consider these facts? He probably won’t get that request from House Speaker John Boehner, one of twelve children, but he could get it from his equally faithful follower former Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Pope Francis is reportedly a very good listener.

One can only hope.

Celebrating Women’s Equality

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi speaking to a Women's Equality Day crowd in San Francisco

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi speaking to a Women’s Equality Day crowd in San Francisco

This is for all those who missed the party:

Women’s Equality Day quietly came and went recently, not quite 100 years after passage of the Nineteenth Amendment – the law that said women were equally entitled, along with men, to the right to vote. Since ratification of that groundbreaking law – women should make choices just as men do?! – an assortment of other rights have been won. But equality? Not quite.

It was the indomitable U.S. Representative “Battling Bella” Abzug who figured that all those rights – won and yet to be won – should have their own day. The New York Democrat introduced legislation establishing Women’s Equality Day, to be observed annually on August 26th in commemoration of the 1920 passage of the 19th Amendment. A lot of other indomitable women, notably Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her suffragette friends Lucretia Mott and Susan B. Anthony, laid the groundwork for the women’s movement.

Fast forward to Women’s Equality Day, 2014. In his official proclamation, President Obama mentioned “all those decades spent organizing, protesting, and agitating,” and took the occasion to list (in the proclamation) a few of the things that his administration has indeed accomplished to advance women’s equality.

But in commemorative events such as the one this writer attended in San Francisco with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, there was a lot of talk about areas in which women are still not quite equal. Pelosi’s focus, she explains, is a three-pronged “Middle Class Jumpstart,” aimed at achieving equal pay for equal work, paid sick leave, and quality affordable healthcare – actions that would unquestionably boost equality for (and the lives of) women in the U.S.

What those ferocious ancestors of ours like Abzug and Anthony were fighting for was not just equality but justice. There’s not much justice if you’re a single mom having to send a sick child to school because you can’t afford to lose a day’s pay or manage a trip to the doctor. Nor is there much justice if that day’s pay is 10% less than men on the same job are getting.

There’s also not much justice for women in non-metropolitan areas who seek abortion services. Ninety-seven per cent of them have to travel long distances, navigate a maze of medically unnecessary restrictions and often also struggle through hostile protesters – assuming they can find the time and money to do this.

Are such issues – reproductive rights – equality issues? It’s hard to feel equal – to the men who don’t face these issues, or to people with more money and power than you — if you are a woman in any of the situations cited above. And given the strength of the conservatives who want to tip the scales ever farther downward, it’s hard to feel optimistic.

But Pelosi and her “Middle Class Jumpstart” plans, reproductive justice groups like NARAL, Planned Parenthood and the National Abortion Federation (to name just a few) and women’s rights organizations of every sort are hard at work trying to keep the scales from tipping farther against U.S. women. Bella Abzug would be proud.

It’s not too early to start planning for Women’s Equality Day 2015.

Things that matter

My daughter, having survived intact when her truck was totaled on Christmas Eve, mourned the absence of her pit/Great Pyrenees puppy, who took off when the truck flipped. Apple the dog apparently decided things might be calmer in the wilds of suburban Atlanta. (Flo the very old part-Lab, opted to stay put; a two-dog loss might have been too much for Mom.)

Apple’s disappearance was the bad news. Here’s the good news: the outpouring of support, in the form of e-mails, Facebook postings and offers from childhood friends who hadn’t been seen in years to go search local pounds was overwhelming. It gets REALLY hard to stay forlorn in the face of love and support from friends, family and people you never heard of who are offering comfort and help.

At Nancy Pelosi‘s annual January gathering there was another kind of support in evidence — and for me another reminder of the value of lasting friendship. I got a quick hug from my favorite star Democrat, California senator Mark Leno, who is often talked about as a potential successor to Pelosi. He gets my vote: Mark Leno is smart, level-headed, perceptive and impeccably ethical. (We could do with more politicians who’ve had rabbinical training.) He is also still graciously loyal to his life partner Doug Jackson, who died of AIDS decades ago in the early years of that grim time. Doug was the son of old friends of mine in Decatur, Georgia, so my affection for the good senator goes far beyond politics.

The bad news is that wars and sadness are everywhere. (Though Pelosi listed her priorities: jobs, safety — read: gun control, immigration reform and overturn Citizens United; that would spread joy.) The good news is that friendships are more powerful than all of the above. And if you hang onto them you can nearly always get a hug when you need one.

Mothers, daughters & Gloria Steinem

Gloria Steinem

Gloria Steinem (Photo credit: Queen of Planning)

The big guns, gender-neutrally speaking, were all out at the recent DCCC Women’s Power Lunch in San Francisco: former (and this crowd hopes future) Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, an assortment of other House members including Congresswomen Barbara Lee and Jackie Speier, honoree Nan Tucker McEvoy and most of everyone who is anyone progressive in Northern California. But MC Gloria Steinem, 78 and proud of it (and looking pretty darned good to this 79-year-old) was still the star.

Steinem spoke with characteristic vigor about women’s rights currently very much in jeopardy, suggesting that many of the country’s economic issues could be solved simply by raising women’s pay to the level of men’s, and that fixing other inequities wouldn’t be a bad idea either. She also homed in on the Republican pledge to overturn both Obamacare and Roe v Wade. If a constitutional amendment were passed declaring the fertilized egg a “person” with full rights, Steinem said, women would not only lose their own rights but face serious endangerment. Such as: a pregnant woman thought to be inclined toward trying to abort could be physically restrained through the remainder of her pregnancy.

In a few poignant moments Steinem spoke to the largely female audience of the special relationships among women — mothers and daughters, sisters, grandchildren. “We are living the lives our mothers coul

d not,” she said, and working to protect the lives of our daughters and granddaughters.

I feel certain that my gentle, righteous mother would not have supported for a moment my being forced to continue an unplanned pregnancy and bring an unwanted child into the world. I hope, partly through my support for women’s rights, my granddaughters will have the right to make their own safe choices.