Thursday, May 28, 2009

"Hip Hop Intellectual" Wants More from Obama on Race

Michael Eric Dyson has no problem following a quote from Frederick Douglas with a shout out to Snoop Dogg. In fact, it's one of the reasons he is considered by some to be one of the most thoroughly thoughtful and entertaining intellectuals in America and when it comes to race, there are few who see the subtle cues and put downs more vividly than Dyson.

Speaking at the Commonwealth Club of California, the Georgetown professor and noted author on race, both excited the crowd with searing rhetoric reminiscent of an old time preacher along with hip-hop soliloquys of rap's most provocative lyrics. His thoughts on the place of an African-American in the White House may have caught some off-guard, though. Dyson, while thrilled to have President Obama in the Oval Office, believes he fails to confront race fully.

“He is forced into sometimes-narrow considerations. Pocket of reserve and critical reflection when it comes to issues of race, class and culture. Obviously, he doesn't want to be painted into a corner of being the black president. Ain't nobody going to miss he's a brotha. Just look at the way he walks to Air Force One,” Dyson said while mimicking Obama's soulful strut. He also accused the president along with society of failing to cozy up to the ongoing issue of race. “Blackness has been the disturbing, formidable presence of a negative that not be totally eradicated. So, we are uncomfortable with it -- the president, I would add, too.”

Much of the night featured Dyson issuing poignant comic jabs at the president, Rush Limbaugh and the role of Michelle Obama. He lamented the sorry state of the U.S. economy just as Obama took office when he quipped, “Of course they would hand a brotha a key to a sinking ship.” and added. “It's good that we have an African-American president, I think at this particular point. Like Tupac [Shakur] said, 'A brotha know how to make a dollar out of fifteen cents.' He certainly will have to make much more from far less.”

Recent calls by Republicans of reverse racism levied against Obama's Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor for citing her Latina heritage struck Dyson as ridiculous, as he charged Limbaugh of piling on a historically marginalized race and gender. He said her racial background is a positive. “Rush Limbaugh goes on his warpath and says, 'What do you mean? That's reverse racism!' It's the former racism that I'm worried about,” said Dyson, “Taken out of context — looking like the woman is out to be playah hating on white men, that ain't the point. The point is, if you've been dominated, it's often been rendered irreversible, therefore, invisible. Not seen, Mr. Limbaugh.”

With Tuesday's ruling from the California Supreme Court upholding the state's ban on gay marriage still on many minds, Dyson discussed the opponents of Proposition 8 and their linkage to the plight of blacks in the Civil Rights Era. He noted some African-Americans do not take the co-opting of their struggle by gays lightly, but points out the Civil Rights movement was heavily borrowed from Mahatma Gandhi's principle of non-violence. Dyson admitted that the eradication of homophobia from his mind is still a work in progress and views homosexuality in physiological terms.

“When do you choose to be heterosexual?,” he said, “At seven years old, you rode on your mama and said, 'Look, I'm going to need me a Corvette and a black book because I'm going to be macking the ladies and a decent basement, so when we come down here, it's going to be looking good'.”

Perhaps surprisingly, he lauded the rise of Michelle Obama as the “Mom-in-Chief” as a significant breaking of racial stereotypes regarding black women, but only to a certain point. “The momification of Michelle Obama nullifies the narrative of the black woman as a reckless mom — the welfare queen. She just juxtaposes that. She's a super-heroic figure,” he said. “But her mama is in the crib, too. A lot of so-called welfare queens don't have mama in the crib and, if she does, mama has children, too.” He also referred to Queen Elizabeth's notable breaching of protocol when she touched Michelle Obama's arm and in a tongue-in-cheek manner envisioned the first lady's future presidency.

“I think Michelle Obama is an extraordinary person,” he said, “I think when she becomes president she'll find Bin Laden the first week."

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Prop 8 Opposition

In light of the California Supreme Court's ruling yesterday that upheld the constitutionality of Proposition 8, which revoked the right to same-sex marriage in the state, we take a look back to September 2008, when a panel discussion at The Commonwealth Club of same-sex marriage advocates discussed how to approach the public relations battle.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

North Korea's Nuclear Test may be Obama's First Challenge

North Korea's detonation of a nuclear bomb in the mountains near the Chinese border may be the initial foreign test Vice President Joe Biden infamously foresaw earlier this year. Last March, New York Times Chief Washington Correspondent told the Commonwealth Club that an administration's first crisis may not portend disaster. Sanger noted the Bush Administration's successful responses to the China EP-3 controversy when an American fighter jet collided with a Chinese jet over Hainan Island, and the handling of the post-9/11 up until the invasion of Iraq.

Sanger believed that an international incident including North Korea would likely be early in President Obama's first term and an unfortunate leftover from the previous administration's foreign policy regarding the communist nation.

"North Korea, to my mind, was probably the single biggest failure of diplomacy of the Bush Administration -- not that they didn't try in the second term -- but if you look at the moments when the North Koreans got their nuclear fuel, it was January, February and March of 2003, just as we were heading to Kuwait and up into Iraq," said Sanger, "That was the moment they picked, in full view of our satellites. I suspect North Korea could end up, just because it wants the attention, to be one of the early crisis."

The size of the nuclear bomb is unclear, although seismic readings suggest a blast one-quarter the size of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima at the end of World War II. To exacerbate international outrage over the test, it was reported that the North Koreans launched three short-range missiles, and some reports suggest the regime of Kim Jong Il is showing strength in the face of his waning health and uncertainty over who will succeed him.

Some experts are suggesting that the response to a nuclear test by North Korea seems to have hit the Obama Administration flat-footed.
“As much as they understood this was going to be an issue, they weren’t ready for a nuclear test in May,” an expert on North Korea told the New York Times. “They’re in a situation now where they have to contain and manage a crisis.”

How the president handles the situation will likely give the Iranians -- who are also believed to be actively pursuing the development of nuclear weapons -- an indication of how the administration will play its cards, yet each scenario has it differences. While Iran is believed to be seeking nuclear protection from a strike by either Israel or the U.S., some believe that North Korea has always used the procurement of nuclear weapons, in simplistic terms, to draw the attention of the Western world. Wendy Sherman, a policymaker in the Clinton administration, said succinctly, “The North Korean leadership cares about internal matters, not external matters. They care about external matters only insofar as it helps ensure the survival of the regime.”

For some important background on North Korea's nuclear ambitions, watch this May 25, 2007, video from the Commonwealth Club speech by Gordon C. Chang, author of "Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes on the World."

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Fight over the Bush Administrations' Terror Policies


With the high-stakes speeches this morning from President Barack Obama and former Vice President Dick Cheney (see above and below), the United States is beginning to get what Obama has long said he wanted to avoid: rehashing the past. Today, Cheney's speech tried to defend the actions taken during his time in office, saying they protected Americans from further attack, and Obama gave a blistering attack on those actions, noting that traditionally Americans closed down torture chambers around the world.

Both views will likely be analyzed and spun ad nauseum in the next couple weeks. But it's really just a continuation of a long-running battle, super-charged by critics from the Right who believe the Obama administration has weakened our anti-terror protections and critics from the Left who believe Obama has backtracked on pledges to end inhumane practices.

Some of those latter people recently met with President Obama to talk about his plans for tribunals for alleged terrorists and other actions that have alarmed human rights groups, Newsweek's Michael Isikoff reports. Anthony Romero, head of the American Civil Liberties Union, left the meeting feeling impressed with the president's command of the issues but disappointed in his policy decisions. Romero has been a vocal proponent of prosecuting leading figures in the Bush administration over torture allegations, as he argued in his recent Commonwealth Club discussion.

Another participant in the meeting, Vincent Warren (photo at right), executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, is reported by RebelReports as having commented, "I came out of the meeting deeply disappointed in the direction that the administration is taking ... I don’t see meaningful differences between these detention policies and those erected by President Bush."

Whether that comment will cheer conservative critics of Obama is unclear, but people on all sides of this issue can hear more from Warren when he speaks at The Commonwealth Club tonight. The title of his speech couldn't be more clear: "Neutralizing the Bush Legacy."

Monday, May 18, 2009

Robert Heller: How to Heal the Financial Markets

The economy and financial system may look like messes today, but they can be fixed. Robert Heller, a former governor of the Federal Reserve Board and the former CEO of VISA U.S.A., told The Commonwealth Club on April 29 that there were several things that needed to be done to restore confidence in our financial markets.

First, we need to "sharply limit or even eliminate" the ability of certain financial institutions to take speculative positions. Second, let corporations choose a set of rules under which their securities are traded (to, for example, require buyers to hold their securities for a week before reselling them). Third, establish a safe pension system.

Find out how he thinks these things will have an impact. Watch the video:

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Torture Touches Everybody

Torture allegations may be a defining accusation of the Bush administration by history's standard, but that does not mean it cannot plague Democrats, too, as U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is finding out and as the president is working to avoid. For a nation starting to come to terms with "enhanced interrogation techniques" and possible new photos of prisoner humiliation and mistreatment and the whole issue of torture and who's responsible, this is a time where some people are asking, At what point does the new government's cautious approach and the American people's earlier disinterest make it complicit in allowing torture to have occurred in the first place?

Just this week, Michael Kinsley wrote an opinion piece in the Washington Post charging Americans with collusion in the awful deeds: "If you're going to punish people for condoning torture, you'd better include the American citizenry itself." Salon's Gary Kamiya similarly wrote, "How would these people react to an investigation of those Bush officials who planned and authorized the very deeds that they themselves supported?"

It may seem a tenuous argument at best to charge 56 million voters with complicity when they did not choose to re-elect George W. Bush in 2004 based solely on whether or not he approved waterboarding. But it might help to note that these facts were known before Americans went to the polls. Jacob Weisberg, in an article for Newsweek, lays out what we knew earlier than 2004. Various media outlets had already published reports of illegal extradition of suspected terrorists to CIA "black sites" in foreign countries, and knowledge of the excessive waterboarding of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed along with photos from Abu Ghraib were widely written scandals.

Weisberg also does a fine job of recreating the atmosphere of fear fed by the Bush administration's warnings about the consequences of insufficient vigilence during those years. New York Times conservative columnist David Brooks remarked about it today and believes Pelosi should own up to participating in that atmosphere of uncertainty: "Why can’t she just tell the obvious truth? She was influenced by the climate of the time. In retrospect, she wishes she had raised her voice in protest." In an appearance at the Commonwealth Club of California last month, Pelosi did not mention the already simmering issues of torture.

After President Barack Obama choose this week to withhold the release of new photos of detainee abuse of terrorist suspects (taken as early as 2004), this issue looms as an issue for which Obama has taken ownership. In so doing, he raised the ire of the ACLU. The president's rationale of protecting the troops and avoiding to inflame the anger of the Muslim world is similar to the policy of the previous administration.

Today, Pelosi publicly charged the CIA and the Bush administration for misleading her about waterboarding, attempting to deflect Republican claims this week that she knew about the situation. "To the contrary ... we were told explicitly that waterboarding was not being used," CBS quotes her as telling reporters today in reference to a 2002 briefing she had with CIA officials.

Since another terrorist attack on U.S. soil has not materialized, this is a political issue of high energy but it's difficult to discern in terms of real impact. But a lot of Americans are concerned about who knew what when, what the real story is about the United States' involvement in torture, its effectiveness or ineffectiveness, and the consequences for U.S. soldiers, America's moral standing, and the rest of the world.

ACLU chief Anthony Romero makes no mystery of where he stands, as he told The Commonwealth Club April 30th. The video is below:

By Steven Tavares

Can David Geffen Save The New York Times?

By John Zipperer

Film industry billionaire David Geffen wants to buy The New York Times. Not a copy here or there; not subscribe so it’ll be delivered to his doorstep every morning. No, Geffen wants to buy The New York Times Company.

That may seem like an odd thing for a successful businessman to desire. With print news organizations suffering from a mix of economic crisis, the loss of their cash-cow classified advertising business, and some poor decision-making, we’ve already seen some major changes in the newspaper landscape in this country, and we can expect to see some more. The Tribune Company, owners of the Chicago Tribune and more recently (and controversially) of the Los Angeles Times, filed for bankruptcy after it was bought in a debt-laden deal by real estate billionaire Sam Zell. The San Francisco Chronicle reportedly just barely escaped being closed or sold for parts, and the Boston Globe is losing more than $80 million a year.

Huge debt overloads, depressed advertising revenue, and still largely unproven online revenue models have driven a number of papers to the brink of insolvency. Newspapers were traditionally very profitable ventures, and in turn they play crucial roles in informing, uncovering, entertaining, and occasionally provoking citizens. Is the for-profit life of papers over? Can citizens get the news and critical information they need from the new wave of journalism ventures?

One such is the brand new East Bay Citizen, a news blog created and just launched by Steven Tavares, a Commonwealth Club intern who has contributed to this blog. It takes its inspiration from the idea that hyperlocal news is not covered well by the aging and money-losing giant news organizations. Tavares predicts the growth of many very localized news sources to fill in the gap.

But Times is a different animal, a local newspaper that has become a national and even international news brand. What can be done with it?

Geffen is planning to turn The New York Times into a nonprofit news organization, according to a report in Newsweek. The idea has been implemented elsewhere, such as the St. Petersburg Times in Florida, which has been run by a nonprofit for decades. Newsweek says that its sources tell it that Geffen "envisions himself as the next Nelson Poynter, the late proprietor of the St. Petersburg Times and a legend in journalistic circles for his fierce independence. The Florida newspaper ... is the widely recognized prototype of the nonprofit structure that is now generating growing interest in some quarters of an industry facing an existential crisis. Poynter, who died in 1978, willed his control to the nonprofit and highly influential Poynter Institute, viewing the mechanism as the optimal way of preserving the St. Petersburg Times' independence and local ownership. Today, under the complex ownership structure, the St. Petersburg Times operates in many respects like a for-profit newspaper."

Would it work for The New York Times? First of all, Geffen's not even assured of gaining control. He failed in a bid to buy a minority interest in the company. And The Financial Times' John Gapper urges The New York Times' Ochs-Sulzberger family, which controls ownership of the firm, not to sell until they've returned it to profitability.

But the effort is likely to be watched intently, including by northern Californians.

"Here in the Bay Area, a group led by investor Warren Hellman and attorney Bill Coblentz has been discussing how to preserve the Chronicle by changing its business model," Commonwealth Club President and CEO Dr. Gloria Duffy wrote in her May 2009 InSight column in The Commonwealth magazine. "Active consideration has been taking place in the philanthropic community about what donors can do to help preserve media capabilities to inform the public about important societal issues."

"I would make an appeal, to every philanthropy at all levels, and lay it all on the line," journalism legend Jim Lehrer told Duffy during an April 5, 2009, Commonwealth Club program in Lafayette. "This is important. And I would try to figure out a way to create a serious nonprofit major news-gathering organization for everybody. In other words, you would do the Walter Reed [Army Hospital] story, but you wouldn't do it just for the Washington Post -- anybody could run it." He went on to describe a news service that would be available to everybody at no cost. It would have to be constructed in a way that "it has the trust of everybody. But it would have to be serious; you'd have to be willing to break some china every once in a while. Or otherwise, forget it."

Perhaps Geffen and Lehrer will sit down together to discuss the future of news. In the meantime, you can watch the entire Lehrer-Duffy conversation here:

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

ACLU Chief: Put Bush and Cheney on Trial

In an April 30th talk at The Commonwealth Club, ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero called for the prosecution of any and all U.S. officials, including former President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, who may have knowingly authorized or engaged in important crimes.

“Should the line be drawn around the president? No … We’ve impeached one president who broke the law knowingly and intelligently broke the law. If an investigation shows that our former President Bush broke the law, then he too must be held for account. His election as president did not make him immune to prosecutions of crimes.”

Speaking candidly as the inaugural speaker of The Commonwealth Club's series on The U.S. Constitution in the 21st Century (underwritten by the Charles Geschke Family), Romero described as illegal the acts of torture authorized by high-ranking government officials, putting it in Orwellian terms by saying the victims were intentionally exposed to whatever irrational fear haunted them the most.

“What was a work of fiction [George Orwell’s 1984], for the Bush administration, became the reality," Romero added. "Bush lawyers allowed life to imitate fiction.” For these crimes, Romero and his teams of lawyers at the ACLU will continue their six-year investigation and what they hope will be prosecutions of some of the highest ranking government officials.

Romero also explained why current economic crises and international pressures may force the Obama Administration to push aside divisive issues such as gay rights and the war on terror. Romero asserted that, though the first months of Obama’s presidency have been marked by considerable change, if the threats to civil liberties are not addressed, the future of America may be in more peril than originally believed.

With Romero at the helm, the ACLU has won court victories on the Patriot Act and filed landmark litigation on the torture and abuse of detainees in U.S. custody. Most recently, the ACLU successfully challenged the Bush administration’s illegal spying program. Under Romero, the ACLU has experienced the most successful membership growth in its history and doubled the budget and national staff of the organization.

An attorney with a history of public-interest activism, Romero is the first openly gay man and the first Hispanic to serve as director of the ACLU. In 2005 Time Magazine named him one of the 25 Most Influential Hispanics and “The Champion of Civil Rights.” Born in New York City to Puerto Rican parents, Romero was the first member of his family to graduate high school. He went on to graduate from the Stanford University Law School and Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public Policy and International Affairs.

-- By The Commonwealth Club Media Relations Department

The Clean Coal Controversy

CBS News' "60 Minutes" recently looked at the controversial choice America has as it tries to wean itself from foreign oil and at the same time address the environmental impact of our energy use.

Watch CBS Videos Online

For more in-depth ideas about clean coal -- is it clean? is it feasible? -- check out a recent Commonwealth Club program on Clean Coal: Myth or Reality?"