Saturday, April 24, 2010

Back to Penn

Got lucky again and my D invited me to see David Remnick speak at Penn last Wednesday. He is a Pulitzer prize winning author, the editor of The New Yorker since 1998, replacing Tina Brown, and now the author of the new Obama biography, The Bridge . The Bridge is the story of Obama 's election from the focus of race. The lecture was titled, The Joshua generation which is the name given to Obama, and our own Mayor Nutters' generation. Seems, no surprise there, that the story of Moses and the exodus from Egypt has great meaning within the black community. The older civil rights leaders, Martin Luther King, John Lewis, are referred to as the Moses generation as they led their people to civil, educational, and political freedom but it is this new generation who has, like Joshua, been allowed to enter the promise land; schools like Harvard, and the apex of all, the White House.

Remnick was exactly who you want the editor of The New Yorker to be. Central casting couldn't have done a better job. Super smart, very funny, quick on his feet, confident with out being arrogant. He was cute in that skinny ,curly dark haired Jewish geek way. He even had his son in the audience,a cute Jewish boy!
I won't reiterate the entire lecture but here is one question, and answer, I thought might be of interest.
A woman asked why he thinks Obama seems to not have as strong support from the Jewish community as one would expect given that his two closest advisers, David Alexrod and Rahm Emmanuel are both Jewish and in Rahm's case, very tied to Israel? After a moments hesitation Remnick said that there is no way to avoid saying that the great majority of the anti-Obama sentiment is nothing but racism. He also added that Obama is a pragmatist and believes that the current right wing Israeli government approach/attitude toward the Arab problem swings between unrealistic and disillusion as perfectly illustrated by their announcement of new settlements in the middle of Biden's visit. He said that the same can be said for the current Arab governments.
The weirdest question? A guy in the back asked if in his research he found out anything about how Obama was as a lover. Remnick humorously and politely noted that he was no Kitty Kelly and quickly moved on!
All in all, a great night.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Public debate or Debase?

I was lucky enough to attend a forum this week at Penn on the state of public debate in the united states today. Incredibly lucky both that my daughter invites me to spend time with her, and, that she invites me to spend time with her attending such great events. I think as college students the kids may get blase about their exposure to great minds but for me it was a wonderful opportunity to be able to spend the evening listening in on a conversation between a group of such smart, accomplished and funny people.
The forum was moderated by Amy Gutman, the University President, and the five person panel included three outstanding professors, including Kathleen Hall Jamieson,and Jim Leach, who had been a Congressman for thirty years and now serves as the Chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and Andrea Mitchell, from NBC news.
Obviously everyone agreed that the state of public debate in today's society was horrendous. First was a discussion on the causes.
The Media
What we have today is passion without facts. Given the speed at which talk radio, talk tv and the internet moves there is no longer time to check facts before reporting them and in many cases not even an aspiration toward balance. The increase in media outlets means that people hear only what they already believe. The only show on TV which is watched equally by liberal and conservatives? House.
People are drawn to the most outrageous or extreme shows. Increased ratings=increased revenue which encourages more shows and pundits to employ these tactics.
More important is the issue of money in politics, made much worse by the recent Supreme Court decision. The need of a politician to raise huge sums of money to survive fuels extremism as the those with extreme views get the most PAC money.
The Public
Yes, not all blame can be laid on others. We seem to have lost the art of pro-active hearing, of really listening with an open mind to the opinions of others because we think we already know what the other side is going to say.
How do we fix the problem?
We need to let go of the notion that expressing opinions in a zero sum game. We need to let go of the belief that if you win then I have lost my America.
We need to recognize that words can lead to violence. We need to be more aware of the danger of language that comes from a place of rage, especially rage based racism. The bombings in Oklahoma City and the Nazi regime in Germany both began with a language of violence and rage.
We need to demand more and we need to demand better from our leaders. We need to demand that they do not fight fire with fire, that they deescalate, not escalate, the rhetoric.
Is there any hope?
There was a great deal of optimism concerning the college age generation, with whom his group has a great deal of contact. Although their faith in politics is fairly low, their level of volunteerism is extremely high. Their openness to hearing each other is also very high. One professor sited as an example a group of Jewish and Muslim students who recently joined together to spend their spring break in New Orleans helping the victims of Katrina. They called themselves MAGIC- Muslims and Jews in cahoots. One professor said he thinks they may be the next greatest generation. In one of the funniest lines of the night he said that we may just have to wait until the pig passes through the python and this generation takes over.

So lots of food for thought. Please pass this along to anyone but especially anyone you know who thinks that anyone who expresses an opinion different than their own deserves to be shut down, or worse, shot down.