On Tyranny — and Anti-Tyranny

Feodora Chiosea/Getty Images

Everybody knew one: the bully kid you couldn’t avoid; the neighborhood tyrant.

When I was six, little Beverly Ann Brooks was queen. Everybody deferred to Beverly Ann. When pushed against, she had only to say, “Well, I quit,” the ultimatum that ended any game (or whatever) unless the rest of us immediately caved. That was the usual case. One day, however, my sister Mimi – Beverly Ann’s age, they were a grade above me – reached her limit. She positioned herself in front of Our Leader, placed her balled-up fists on her hips and said, “Well, quit then, Bev’ly Ann.” You can see why Mimi was my lifelong heroine. Furthermore, the tactic worked. The rest of us figuratively turned and walked away, and leadership became at least slightly more communal for the rest of the summer.

This essay is not just about tyrants on the political front, several of whom probably come to mind. (It was satisfying though, after years of watching everything I hold dear fall to one super-bully senator who will remain nameless, to see Chuck Schumer turn out to be a modern-day Mimi. At least for a while.)

I worry that we are turning into a country of mini-tyrants. Not just about laws and masks and vaccines (whereupon no amount of authoritarian edicts seem to work very well anyway) but about all manner of other things, from who gets to go where in person to why one rule is good and another the work of the devil. The dictionary definition (a few of us still keep a dictionary on the bookshelf, just because…) of a tyrant settles on “cruel and oppressive.” There seem to be cruel oppressors around at every turn. Would it not be lovely to replace a little tyranny with some old-fashioned negotiation? Negotiation seems eventually to become either too contentious or not worth bothering with – which clears the field for the tyrant. This does not seem to bode well even for tyranny, because so many tyrants are left to preside over scorched earth and a lot of dead bodies.

So what’s to be done? The best books on the subject (which I have not read, I’ve only been studying excerpts and what do I know?) advise things like standing your ground and giving the appearance of being confident. This is supposed to work for the bullied and the tyrannized, as was true for Mimi and (briefly) Chuck Schumer. Now, if we the bullied and tyrannized could figure out how to stand our ground without punching the other guy out, that would be an excellent first step.

We are also advised to try to understand the bullyer. This may be why Mary Trump’s books are selling so well, but I’m trying not to focus on the former Bully in Chief. In fact, just a rudimentary knowledge of money and power makes understanding political tyrants too easy, so this essay will focus on the local citizenry.

After standing one’s ground and trying empathy or understanding, advice turns to walking away, and/or modeling better behavior – think kindness, humor, those sorts of quaint behaviors that came naturally in pre-pandemic times. Actually, I tested this one out a few weeks ago. Caught in a sudden heated argument about outdoor restaurants, it was two against one – I love the outdoor eateries, they just hate them all because they’re unsightly and  usurp precious urban parking spaces and should be immediately outlawed. Facing the loss of both argument and friends I came up with an alternative. “Okay, okay,” I said with my sweetest smile. “I’ll go with banning everybody unless they serve ice cream sundaes with caramel sauce and extra whip at discount prices, any hour of the day.” My adversaries may not substitute that for the ordinance they’re proposing to introduce, but at least we parted friends.

And that’s all I hope for. A little less tyranny, a little more friendship.


Twisting a Friend on Twitter

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Chris J Davis on Unsplash

“If you voted for Biden,” she wrote, “you are still my friend. If you voted for Trump, you are still my friend. We are all friends and neighbors, no matter what.”

Can you argue with that?

The writer is a 20-year-old college student; smart, pretty, popular and well-grounded. Someone who actually believes that business about loving one’s neighbor, and doing unto others as one would like done unto oneself. The problem is, she wrote those lines not on some old-fashioned email or piece of paper; she wrote them on Twitter – which commands a worldview of its own. It was posted months ago – eons, in Twittertime, but nothing in Twitterworld goes away.

Thus the post was discovered recently by an erstwhile friend who decided a lesson needed to be taught: This tweet clearly indicates that the writer is a Trump voter, the friend decided. No sensible non-Trump person could befriend a Trump voter, therefore the writer is a bigot and a racist and no longer welcome in any known friend group. Shunning followed. Friends took sides. Incredible amounts of time were wasted.

Yes I know, it all strains credulity. The re-tweeter is obviously unstable or worse, someone with a distorted self-image and too much idle time. Truth does not figure in, anywhere. But Twitterworld does not seek truth, only agitation and activity – which quickly develop once such stupidity begins.

Here is the question: In a world where Twitter rules, is there any hope for Truth? When words taken out of context can quickly become distorted and accepted as ‘fact,’? When scrolling through a couple of cellphone feeds passes for being informed and ‘friendship’ twists and turns with a tweet?

Maybe, if we ever slow down.

For a while it appeared the pandemic might teach us to slow down; but then came zoom and we zoomed ahead at breakneck speed. What might have been slowed down at in-person events was instead accelerated via digital and social media. But here is the gleam of hope:

What if, on spotting an argumentative tweet, post or whatever, one were to bite one’s digital tongue and NOT hit Reply? Or even better, not hit Retweet/Share/Re-post? What if, instead, we could cultivate the old-fashioned practice of speaking person-to-person? Even on an old-fashioned phone of some sort? What if we could revive the old-fashioned practice of saying, “Tell me what you mean, what you’re thinking.” The old-fashioned custom of cordial dialogue.

That would bring us all the way back to “You are still my friend.” A long, slow journey.

But what a happy destination.    

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.”

 

 

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.

Tom Nichols & Melissa Caen 5.24.17
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.

Art & the Protection of Democracy

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

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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