Friday, June 26, 2009

Not a Kinder, Gentler Khamenei

Looks like Reza Aslan's sources might be wrong. Aslan, we noted yesterday, suggested that Friday's prayer message from Iran's leaders would be a reflection of whether attempts by opponents and reformers (not necessarily the same people) to forge a compromise were making headway. A softer tone in his Friday message would suggest the efforts were bearing fruit.

Well, the fruit is spoiled. The New York Times reports today:

At Friday Prayer in Tehran University, the senior cleric, Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami [not related to reformist former president Mohammad Khatami], referred to the demonstrators as rioters and declared, “I want the judiciary to punish leading rioters firmly and without showing any mercy to teach everyone a lesson.” Reuters quoted him as saying that demonstrators should be tried for waging war against God. The punishment for such offenses under Islamic law is death, Reuters said.

This morning at a press conference with visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel, President Barack Obama repeated his condemnation of the violence against Iranian protestors. And he rejected the call for him to apologize to Iran, saying that he doesn't take Iranian President Ahmadinejad seriously when he makes such demands, and that Ahmadinejad should think more about apologizing to the families of the demonstrators who have been attacked.

Aslan will address The Commonwealth Club on September 1 in San Francisco.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Reza Aslan: A Deal in the Works in Iran?

There are reports of a deal forming in Iran that would end the current turmoil there, Reza Aslan writes on The Daily Beast today. He says that it's looking like there may be a run-off election between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi. This is apparently the work of former president Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, who heads up the council that picks the supreme leader, currently Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Rafsanjani has reportedly been in the religious center of Qum negotiating with other religious leaders in an attempt to put pressure on Khamenei and President Ahmedinejad.

Though the government's brutal crackdown has quieted things today in Tehran, Aslan says things are still raging in the provinces: "[D]espite the fact that protests in the capital city of Tehran have diminished, there are still reports of massive protests taking place in other parts of the country, including in Tabriz, Isfahan, Kermanshah, Mashad and Shiraz. These protests have been significantly smaller due to the brutal security crackdown, but they have also been much more forceful and violent."

He says that Khamenei's Friday prayers tomorrow should be a good indication of a softening of tone and therefore whether these reports of a compromise are real or not.

For some background, listen to this audio of Aslan's May 16, 2009, speech to The Commonwealth Club. And don' t miss his return engagement here when he comes to our San Francisco headquarters on September 1. See event and ticket information.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Fixing America's Health-Care System

Early this week, President Obama made a landmark decision to grant the federal government, through a new office in the FDA, authority to regulate the content, marketing and sale of cigarettes and other tobacco products. Despite his own well-known cigarette habit, he says his intention is to reduce health risks from tobacco and make cigarettes both less accessible and less inviting to young people. The move, aimed at focusing on health wellness and disease prevention, is in line with his much larger health-care plan for America. He made reference to his proposed health-care agenda in his Tuesday, June 23, 2009, news conference.

“This is legislation that must and will be paid for,” said the president. “It will not add to our deficits over the next decade. We will find the money through savings and efficiencies within the health-care system, some of which we’ve already announced.”

President Obama also stated that the government’s reform would work to lower the cost of health care, and he warned that doing otherwise would leave millions more Americans uninsured. He further emphasized that the current state of the health-care system needs drastic change and that “the status quo is unsustainable and unacceptable.”

“So reform is not a luxury,” said President Obama. “It’s a necessity, and I hope Congress will continue to make significant progress on this issue in the weeks ahead.”

The president’s web site outlines his health-care reform package. Among his recommendations, he cites the necessity to reduce the growth of health-care costs for businesses and government, protect families from bankruptcy or debt, and assure affordability for all Americans. He also supports guaranteeing choice of doctors and health plans, investing in preventions and wellness, improving patient safety and quality of care. Moreover, he advocates ending barriers to coverage for people with pre-existing medical conditions.

Will his changes go far enough, or might they go too far? The Commonwealth Club has heard from a number of health-care advocates, economists, and others seeking to change the system. Zeke Emanuel, chair of the Department of Clinical Bioethics at the Clinical Center of the National Institutes of Health and the brother of Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, spoke to The Club on January 8. (See embedded video below.) Zeke Emanuel urged a roots-and-branches overhaul of the system, but it's not clear that such a change is politically feasible. In his talk, Emanuel said, “Most Americans understand that the system is broken. We understand that we have a problem in this country, and I think it’s very widespread.”

Christina Romer, chair of the Council of Economic Advisors in the Obama Administration, made the economic case for health-care reform in her June 8 speech at Club headquarters. She shared the president’s vision for reform. She observed, “The overarching goal is to develop a cost-effective health-care system that preserves quality, expands coverage, and ensures choice and security for all Americans.” (See video here.)

More recently, former U.S. Secretary of State and former Secretary of Labor George Shultz and Hoover Institution Senior Fellow John Shoven explained their plan for handling the nation's spiraling social service commitments, specifically health care costs and Social Security. See video below.

--Commonwealth Club Media and Public Relations Department

Thomas Frank Returns to Baffle Some More

What's the Matter with Kansas author Thomas Frank is putting out a new edition of his fabled magazine The Baffler. The Chicago-based publication was an infrequently published liberal critique of new-economy thinking over the past decade, but it's been several years since an issue appeared. Now, the New York Observer reports, the magazine will be produced on a twice-yearly schedule.

People who are wondering what Frank has on his mind these days can either pick up the latest edition of The Baffler or can meet him at his appearance at The Commonwealth Club on May 8 in Silicon Valley. (Watch The Club's web site for details.)

Frank, a weekly columnist for the Wall Street Journal, is the author most recently of The Wrecking Crew.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

What Does North Korea Want?

North Korea has an uncanny ability to shape its geopolitical reality despite the weak hand it's dealt itself, noted author and Korea expert Gordon G. Chang during a Commonwealth Club speech May 25, 2007: "[The U.S. is] the strongest nation in history. North Korea is one of the most destitute states. Yet for more than five decades, the regime run by the Kim family has outmaneuvered us at almost every turn. The situation is even more peculiar than that, because North Korea is not only outmaneuvering us; it's outsmarting the rest of the world." [Listen to entire program.]

Global attention is once again focusing on North Korea amid reports that Pyongyang is preparing a long-range missile test sometime around July 4. As a result, additional protections have been ordered for Hawaii in the event a missile is launched. While North Korea denies it is threatening the United States, the North Korean newspaper Rodong Sinmun stated, “As long as our country has become a nuclear power, the U.S. should take a correct look at whom it is dealing with.”

In an interview with CBS News’ Harry Smith, President Barack Obama said he did not want to “speculate on hypotheticals.” But at the same time, Obama stated, “This administration – and our military -- is fully prepared for any contingencies.”

Meanwhile, North Korea also claimed last week that Laura Ling and Euna Lee, the two U.S. journalists who had been sentenced to 12 years in a labor camp, admitted entering the country illegally in order to slander the country’s human rights record. There are no independent accounts of exactly where the journalists were captured, and the U.S. has asked for the release of the two women. However, many speculate that the journalists are being used as bargaining chips by North Korea against the United States.

As we near the possible launch of the missile toward Hawaii and we await an outcome of the prisoner saga, it might be a good time to dig a bit deeper into Korean politics, culture, and history. In recent years and months, The Club has hosted many programs concerning North Korea, featuring experts from a variety of viewpoints. Several of these discussions were moderated by Club President and CEO Dr. Gloria Duffy, who served as U.S. Special Coordinator for Cooperative Threat Reduction and Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense in the 1990s. To view these programs, visit our video partners at

--Commonwealth Club Media and Public Relations Department

Firoozeh Dumas Stresses U.S.-Iranian History

Writer/humorist Firoozeh Dumas has written at length about the painful experience of being an Iranian immigrant in the United States after the beginning of the hostage crisis in Iran three decades ago. As American anger toward the revolutionary regime in Iran increased, Iranian-Americans found themselves dodging hostility from neighbors and strangers alike. It got to the point that when Dumas' mother was asked where she was from, she'd say without hesitating, "Turkey."

Dumas herself does more than her mother to try to bridge the differences between the two countries, and she -- like millions around the world -- is closely following the dramatic events in Iran. She does not, however, put herself on the side of those urging the United States to be like Europe and take a more combative public stance against Iran. She writes in a post on her blog:
Do I believe the election was rigged? Absolutely. Do I believe that Obama is doing the right thing by not getting more involved? Absolutely! Some of you have asked why [he] is not doing more. Here is a quick history lesson: In 1953, the CIA and the British staged a coup and ousted Iran’s only democratically elected leader Mohammd Mossadegh. Why did they do this? One word: oil. Mossadegh wanted to nationalize the oil industry which had been under British control. (This meant that oil was real cheap.)
That history is alluded to in the Iranian government's harsh response to the protesters, claiming Western interference in its internal affairs. But it's also possible that the current events will undo some of the automatic anti-Iranianism of some in the West and replace it with a growing respect for the bravery of the demonstrators.

Things certainly do appear to be changing. Dumas gave more context in her May 8, 2008, Commonwealth Club of California in Silicon Valley [watch the video], noting, "Over and over again, I see that stories that have to do with Iran tend to be frightening. I find that so upsetting.... Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, [Iran's] president, is not speaking on behalf of the Iranian people; he's speaking on behalf of himself." Now, perhaps moreso than ever.

Friday, June 19, 2009

The New Revolutionaries?

After about three decades in which western news audiences saw endless examples of Middle Eastern young people being used as fodder for religious wars, the current demonstrations in Iran might be pointing to a change. Blogger Steve Clemons presents some information that the young generation of Iranians is indeed full of trouble-makers -- but trouble-makers who favor democracy and an end to the reign of hard-liners and their militias.

Meanwhile, we provide some more background on Iran's domestic and international politics. Scholar and former Soviet diplomat Ismail Agayev spoke to The Commonwealth Club of California in February of this year. Watch the video for his views about how Iranians are viewing with the world.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Flashback: Farah Pahlavi, Widow of Shah of Iran


See the above BBC News video for a dramatic example of the widespread expressions of support for the Iranian demonstrations against the recent presidential elections. Today, those demonstrations are continuing, focused on mourning for the protestors killed in earlier demonstrations and on showing support for the reformist campaign in the country.

Some people have been expecting such an uprising for many years. On March 15, 2004, The Commonwealth Club of California hosted a program featuring Farah Pahlavi, the widow of the Shah of Iran. Before a packed auditorium, she engaged in an extensive conversation with Mary Bitterman, then the director of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes and currently president of the Osher Foundation and vice chair of The Commonwealth Club's Board of Governors. Much of their discussion concerned her family's time in power and her personal adjustment to the revolution that brought the current Iranian government to power, but she also spoke about her belief that Iranians wanted more freedom and a better economy, themes that are being repeated these days as the protests in Tehran and other Iranian cities continue despite a government attempt to silence journalists covering the demonstrations.

Here were some of her thoughts in 2004:
I don't want to predict, because one cannot know, but from what I hear from the Iranian insiders, I have said that the majority of them are unhappy. They want change, because when you see the state of the economy – a country which was going forward…. To just give you an example, if one dollar was 70 rials 25 years ago; today it is 8,000 rials. The per capita income that was $2,500 25 years ago, now is around $1,000 and maybe less. And also the situation of young people who want freedom, who want the chance to work, to own a house, to be free like all the people in the world; so many young people are addicted, because they have no hope. The condition of women and so many young girls, who unfortunately, because of poverty, are forced to go into prostitution; and so many children beggars in the street. Also the respect of Iran in the family of nations, the environment, the corruption which exists – all that is making the Iranian people very unhappy. But I hope, again, with the effort of all Iranians and also with the support of the free world to support these freedom-loving people of Iran, Iran will gain its freedom and especially keep its territorial integrity. But we just cannot hope and dream, but we have to, all of us, have our part in trying to help in that direction.

You can read the complete transcript of the event here; there are also links to audio of the program.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Iran Back in the Headlines


In the video above, the UK's Channel 4 News reports on the past couple days' developments in the fascinating struggle going on in Iran over its recent presidential election. As you can see from the video, news is getting out of that country, despite strict controls the government there placed on foreign journalists after the election (such as forbidding them from leaving their office to report or photograph demonstrations).

It is obviously far too early to know where this will all head. While people hope for a peaceful outcome, the power lies in the hands of ideological religious militias and an unelected clerical leadership. Still, the reports are interesting to watch.

While you await more complete reports on the goings-on in Iran, after (one hopes) the journalistic restrictions are rescinded, you might want to view some of these videos of Commonwealth Club speakers who talk about Iran, its people, culture, politics, military, and more.

First, author and journalist Azadeh Moaveni has lived and reported in Tehran since 1999, and she spoke February 25, 2009, about private life in Iran.

Author and former CIA agent Robert Baer (the man on whom George Clooney's character was based in the movie Siriana) spoke about "Iran's Grip on America's Future" in a November 5, 2008, speech to The Club:

Iranian-born author Firoozeh Dumas talked about her life as an Iranian-American during a May 8, 2008, Club appearance:

And there are many more. Watch travel writer Rick Steves discuss his recent trip to meet the people of Iran. Abbas Milani and Barbara Slavin peeked inside Iran.

Friday, June 12, 2009

George Shultz and John Shoven: New Thinking on Health Care Reform

George Shultz and John Shoven presented their ideas for a reform of Social Security and health care in a featured program last night at The Commonwealth Club of California in San Francisco. Shultz, former U.S. Secretary of State and former Secretary of Labor, is a noted economist and chairs the Governor of California's Economic Advisory Board. He is co-author, with Shoven, of Putting Our House in Order: A Guide to Social Security and Health Care Reform. Shoven is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute and the director of the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research.

Noting that the goals of health-care reform should include full coverage and would entail subsidy for people unable to get coverage on their own, Shultz then sought to explain their proposals for reforming these two gargantuan social programs and related industries.

The event, underwritten by Koret Foundation Funds, occurred just a few days after President Obama's Council of Economic Advisors chair, Christina Romer, spoke to The Club on the economic aspects of health-care reform. She argued that the costs of not reforming health care in this country would be enormous, but that the savings from doing it would improve the economy in many ways.

To see Shultz and Shoven discuss their ideas, watch this video of their Commonwealth Club event:

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Chevron and Sierra Club: Peace at Last?

In a highly anticipated face-to-face between the heads of Chevron and the Sierra Club last night at The Commonwealth Club's Climate One program, the sold-out audience got a surprise preview of what the future holds in store for these two working together.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Chevron and Sierra Club: Unusual Partners for the Common Good


It's one of the most talked-about (or blogged-about) energy and environmental events in the country: A face-to-face discussion between between the heads of Chevron and the Sierra Club.

As sweeping energy legislation winds through Congress, the chiefs of Chevron and The Sierra Club will sit down – for the first time ever -- to address their visions for powering America’s future. Chevron CEO Dave O’Reilly and Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope both agree that new fuels and efficiency will play an important role in meeting growing global energy demand. Yet they have different views on the role of fossil fuels and the pace – and cost -- of a transition to a low-carbon economy. The event will be held tonight Wedneday, June 10, 6:30 p.m. with a 5:30 check-in time at the Hotel Nikko, 222 Mason Street, in San Francisco. (Limited seating is still available; order tickets.)

"As President Obama has shown us, sometimes unusual partners have to come together to find common ground,” commented Pope. “Our energy issues are more critical than ever, and we're eager to hash out our differences and debate the best way to pursue a clean energy future."

“America’s prosperity was built on a foundation of finding common ground for the common good,” O’Reilly said. “And today we must seek common ground in securing America’s energy future. I look forward to a conversation that focuses on how America will meet its long-term energy needs while addressing environmental concerns.”

Greg Dalton, the founder of The Commonwealth Club’s Climate One program and the organizer of the program, “This debate comes at a critical juncture. Washington is considering rewriting the rules on energy and environment and the stakes are high for both of these heavyweights.”

Additional information on the speakers: O’Reilly was elected chairman and CEO of Chevron Corporation on January 1, 2000. The Dublin, Ireland, native was previously vice president of Chevron Corporation and chief operating officer at Chevron Chemical Company. Upon his graduation from Ireland’s University College, he began his career at Chevron as a process engineer.

Pope became executive director of the Sierra Club in 1992. He co-authored the book Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress. He has worked with the Sierra Club for more than 30 years and has served as a board member for the National Clean Air Coalition, California Common Cause, and Public Interest Economics Inc. In January 2009, Pope announced his plans to step down once a successor is hired.

The discussion will be moderated by Alan Murray, a regular contributor to CNBC and online executive editor of The Wall Street Journal.

--Commonwealth Club Media and Public Relations Department

Climate One on the Road to Copenhagen


Monday, June 8, 2009

Christina Romer: Health Care Reform Is "Good Economic Policy"


Citing a series of benefits to the nation's businesses, public coffers and individual citizens, Christina Romer -- chair of President Obama's Council of Economic Advisors -- made the case for tackling health-care reform.

Romer, speaking Monday, June 8, 2009, at The Commonwealth Club of California in San Francisco, gave some backing to people who've been seeing some recovery from the nation's economic crisis, at least if one measures that by her workload. She said that in the first few months of her tenure in the Obama administration, she dealt with a number of crisis-related topics that were all in her professional comfort zone: banking, fiscal stimulus, recession. But after his first 100 days in office, Obama announced his intention to tackle health-care reform, which led Romer to come up to speed on health-care economics.

"I've gone from being a positive but somewhat passive advocate of health-care reform, to being a passionate advocate," she said of the experience.

She worked on a report that looked at the benefits and costs to the country of reforming -- or not reforming -- its health-care system. She said that by the year 2040, health-care expenditures could be as high as one-third of the nation's economy if the system isn't reformed. A failure to reform, she said, could result in stagnating take-home pay (as insurance premiums eat up an ever-larger share of income) and the number of uninsured could rise from an already-alarming 46 million to 72 million people.

But if the country can meet the president's goals of slowing the growth of health-care costs and expanding coverage to the uninsured, Romer said that significant amounts of money could be freed up for investment in other things, savings will increase (which could also result in lower interest rates), unemployment will drop, and and the inflation rate would be lower.

"Good health-care reform is good economic policy," she summarized.

You can read a copy of the report via a link on this post on the White House blog (yes, they have one, too). A critique of the report's approach from libertarian Michael Tanner of CATO Institute is here. reports on the political give-and-take over the report.

What do you think? Leave a comment below and join the conversation!

Friday, June 5, 2009

Madeleine Albright Surprised but Pleased by Obama's Cairo Speech

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said she was surprised that President Barack Obama decided to give his much-anticipated speech to the Muslim world in Cairo, Egypt. She had expected him to do it in Indonesia, she told Commonwealth Club President and CEO Dr. Gloria Duffy today during a conversation before a large Commonwealth crowd.

There were a number of reasons that Indonesia would have made a logical place for the speech, not least because it would highlight the fact that most Muslims do not live in the Middle East, said Albright. But she said that the decision to go to Egypt, what she called the center of situation, is indicative of how Obama operates: He doesn't dance around the question, but he addresses it head on, as he did with opposition to his speech at Nortre Dame and other examples.

The former top diplomat -- and the first to hold that position in the United States -- says she was very pleased with Obama's speech, noting that he probably was well received by most of the audiences to whom he was speaking.

You can see more of her discussion of Obama's speech and his approach to the Muslim world in this homemade video from the event:

Watch the California Book Awards

The finest California authors of 2008 came out Thursday night, June 4, for The Commonwealth Club’s 78th Annual California Book Awards. Award recipients and finalists mingled, swapped writing tales, and enjoyed an evening of literature and elegance. The ceremony was marked by speeches from honorees August Kleinzahler (poetry), John Adams (nonfiction), and Adam Mansbach (fiction), as well as Ellen Klages (young adult), Rachel Kushner and David Vann (first fiction), Dan Bellm (poetry), and Deanne Stillman (nonfiction). Paul Karlstrom, whose book received the Contribution to Publishing award, also came out to accept. Following the ceremony, guests were treated to a book signing involving all award winners in attendance, while enjoying wine and hors d’oeuvres.

A list of the winners is online here. The video below is of the awards ceremony recognizing the newest winners of this prestigious prize.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Prop 8 Decision: How to Strike Balance Between Majority Rules and Minority Rights

A 6-to-1 decision this week from the California Supreme Court ruled against the American Civil Liberties Union in Strauss v. Horton, recognizing same-sex partnerships with many, though not all, of the legal rights of marriage. The official court opinion upheld the validity of Proposition 8, which was adopted by California voters last November, including a new section (7.5 to Article I) in the California Constitution: “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.” That decision was hailed by opponents of same-sex marriage, such as, but it left supporters of gay marriage hanging as the next stage in their fight against Prop 8 begins. Equality California and the Courage Campaign are working to take the issue back to the ballot box – to repeal Prop 8 – while conducting statewide polls to gauge peoples’ attitudes on same-sex marriage.

Last year the American Civil Liberties Union, National Center for Lesbian Rights, and Lambda Legal filed a lawsuit challenging the validity of Proposition 8 in the California Supreme Court on behalf of six couples and Equality California. That legal challenge consists basically of three points:

1. Prop 8 is a revision, not an amendment, of the states' constitution, and therefore requires either a two-thirds vote of each house of the state legislature and a vote of the people, or a constitutional convention and a vote.
2. Prop 8 may violate the principal of trias politica, or separation of executive, legislative, and judiciary powers.
3. The “inalienable” right to marry cannot be determined by majority vote (unless, according to the attorney general, there is state interest in doing so).

Former California State Senator Sheila Kuehl was the first openly LGBT person elected to the California Legislature. She commented on the ruling, arguing that the court lost its way issuing this “slim and dishonest statement that same sex couples are not denied legal rights by denying them the ‘word’ marriage. The Court errs.”

Others agreed. The San Francisco police department alone reported arresting some 200 protesters, most of whom are members of One Struggle, One Fight, a civil rights coalition using civil disobedience.

Assemblyman (and gay rights activist) Tom Ammiano also decried the court's move as a reminder that “equality cannot be denied to any group and it is only a matter of time before justice prevails.”

ACLU head Anthony Romero indicated that the setback was particularly odd in light of “a recent Iowa Supreme Court ruling saying that it is unconstitutional to keep gay couples from marrying – and the passage of laws opening marriage to everyone by the Vermont and Maine legislatures.” Romero concluded that public support for marriage for same-sex couples is gaining ground, but California is being left behind. Romero spoke at The Commonwealth Club recently, highlighting the ACLU's challenges to the U.S. Patriot Act, litigation on the torture and abuse of detainees in U.S. custody, and challenges to the Bush administration’s illegal spying program. (Romero was the inaugural speaker in The Club's series on The U.S. Constitution in the 21st Century.) He is also the first openly gay man (and the first Hispanic) to serve as director of the ACLU. Romero and the ACLU argue that the Prop 8 debate is unique: The first time a ballot initiative has been used to change the California Constitution and strip away existing right for a particular group – a “suspect class.”

Antidiscrimination law is a cultural thread that defines progress in American society: A nation’s ongoing attempts to mitigate oppression of cultural minorities and compensate for systemic disadvantage, exploitation and injury. Tension between constitutionally protected civil liberties and the democratic mandate of majority rule also exploded during early deliberations that led to the Brown v. Board of Education decision, which was also fraught with conflict over whether popular opinion could deprive a minority of a constitutional right. Jusitice William Rehnquist’s court memos explored this key question of “Whether, in the long run, it is the majority who will determine what the constitutional rights of minorities are?”

As for the Fourth Estate, The Commonwealth Club also explored media coverage of Proposition 8 and its aftermath (Wednesday, April 15), highlighting the work of gay journalist/blogger Rex Wockner, Cynthia Laird, of the Bay Area Reporter, Equality Camp organizer Cathy Brooks, and Sandip Roy, from New America Now (KALW).

--By Andrew Shaw

Driving to The Commonwealth Club

And, sometimes the Internet just offers up some lighter material, which we found by happenstance on the 'net and wanted to share with you.

Here's a video by Ron Fredericks demonstrating how to drive to The Commonwealth Club's San Francisco headquarters from Sunnyvale. (Click on the photo below to go to a new page with the embedded video.) This won't change your life, but it might help you find parking.

Tiananmen Square, Congress, and The Commonwealth Club

If you missed last night's Commonwealth Club program on "How Tiananmen Changed China," you might want to check with your U.S. senator or congressional representative. Thanks to Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND), who chairs the Congressional Executive Commission on China, the speech that made up the heart of the program has become an official part of U.S. history.

John Kamm, the founder and executive director of Dui Hua Foundation, was asked to testify at a hearing of the commission, but he had to pass up that opportunity because of his previously planned speech at The Commonwealth Club. Instead, he sent along a copy of his speech to Dorgan's staff, and the senator reportedly liked the speech so much he had it formally entered into the Congressional Record.

Obama Seeks New Understanding with Muslim World


Watch CBS Videos Online

"America is not, and never will be, at war with Islam," President Obama pledged to an audience in Cairo, Egypt. "We will, however, relentlessly confront violent extremists, who pose a great threat to our security. Because we reject the same thing people of all faiths reject: the killing of innocent men, women, and children."

Today, President Obama gave his long-anticipated speech in Egypt, addressing head-on perceptions and misperceptions between the United States and Islam.

The CBS video of the speech is above. In it, Obama spends considerable time drawing connections first between himself and the Muslim world and then between the United States and Muslims, harkening back to the country's founding and even the first country to recognize the United States' independence: Morocco. In short, he's trying to build an alliance with Muslims to take on common challenges (such as radicals of all sorts, including Islamist terrorist groups) and to help build a new relationship in this age of globalization.

"Any world order that elevates one nation, or group of people, over another, will inevitably fail," Obama told the crowd. "So whatever we think of the past, we must not be prisoners to it."

Obama's speech has already begun to be picked over in detail, but it will be interesting to see what is said about the speech from people who have been covering the Islam-U.S. relationship for years. Paul Barrett, director of the investigative reporting team at BusinessWeek, spoke to The Commonwealth Club in San Francisco February 20, 2007. His speech talked about assimilation and identity among Muslims in America -- a topic Obama proudly touted in his Cairo speech. (See Barrett video below.)

On January 23, 2007, Dinesh D'Souza took the topic and viewed it from a different angle. D'Souza, a conservative Catholic, looked at America as he thought Muslims might view it. (See D'Souza video below.)

And, to add a humorous aspect to this (but one with a serious point), political cartoonist Khalil Bendib spoke to The Commonwealth Club September 18, 2008, about Islamophobia -- and reminds any who needed reminding of the broad range of Muslims and attitudes.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Cleve Jones: Remembering Harvey, and the Birth of the AIDS Memorial Quilt

In a moving and heartfelt talk, AIDS activist and longtime human rights advocate Cleve Jones addressed The Commonwealth Club’s LBGT Member Led Forum on June 1. The close friend of the late San Francisco City Supervisor Harvey Milk, who was portrayed by actor Emile Hirsch in Gus Van Sant’s 2008 Oscar-nominated film “Milk,” discussed topics ranging from his early years in San Francisco, to the AIDS epidemic, to the recent events surrounding the legalization of gay marriage.

Jones told the group that he was inspired to move to San Francisco at age 17, after discovering a magazine in his school’s library containing an article detailing the burgeoning gay rights movement in the city. “I had come to San Francisco to be a part of a revolution,” he said.

He shared his humble beginnings in the city and his first encounter with Harvey Milk, admitting that prior to their meeting, he had not really taken Milk seriously. However, the two men quickly developed a friendship, and subsequently Jones began working as an intern for Milk when he was elected to office. Jones said he was profoundly affected by Milk, and he credits Milk with making him a more tolerant and empathetic person. “I hated straight people when I first got here,” he said. “I was very heterophobic, and that hatred, like most hated, was born out of fear.”

Milk’s assassination overwhelmed him. Upon learning about the killing, Jones lamented, “[The gay rights movement’s] all over now. It’s finished; he was our leader and my father figure, he was the man who opened doors for me and allowed me to think of some amazing future waiting for me.” However, he continued, it was during the candle-lit procession that followed in which thousands of people, gay and straight alike, descended upon City Hall that “I realized it was just the beginning.”

Shortly after Milk’s death, Jones was faced with a new problem, the likes of which he had never seen before. He became aware of the AIDS epidemic, though at the time the virus was virtually unknown. He admitted to initially being “so confused and frightened,” and Jones touched on the shock of being tested and receiving a positive diagnosis. He lived with the virus for 10 years before treatment was available, during which time he watched his friends die on almost a daily basis. “It was just mind numbing,” he recalled. “I felt myself and people around me falling into a state of paralysis.”

However, he said that 1985 was a pivotal year that changed not only his life but the lives of thousands of others. It was during what had now become the annual march on City Hall in remembrance of the 1978 assassination of Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone that Cleve conceived of the idea of the AIDS memorial quilt. He remarked how he passed out paper and pens, urging marchers to write the names of loved ones that they had lost to AIDS. At first, he said, people were hesitant and even ashamed to expose the full names of those they had lost. But eventually he and his friend collected hundreds of papers. After sneaking past security, the two blanketed the entire San Francisco Federal Building with the names of those who were lost, which to Jones looked like “some kind of weird quilt.” From this, the idea of the NAMES Project Memorial Quilt was born. According to Jones, “The quilt was a gift to me, to keep me alive and willing to keep fighting.” In the years since, the quilt has grown to become the world’s largest community arts project, memorializing the lives of more than 80,000 Americans killed by AIDS.

Jones concluded his lecture with a discussion of the current state of gay marriage in America. Though he said that he believes the country has made great strides, he also feels it is time to rethink the strategy on legalizing gay marriage. “I believe the time has come to abandon our focus on state by state, city by city, county by county,” he said. “Every time we settle for a compromise, we are undermining our own humanity, because no other group of people in this country would accept that kind of piecemeal bit-by-bit approach. There is no such thing as a fraction of equality. You are equal or you are not.”

An inspiring speaker, Jones has lectured at high schools, colleges, and universities, and has met several heads of state including Presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton, and former South African President Nelson Mandela. His best-selling memoir, “Stitching a Revolution,” was published by HarperCollins in 2000. Jones has received numerous awards from AIDS and gay rights organizations, religious conferences, state and national health associations, and the legislatures of California, Indiana and Massachusetts. He has served as a member of the International Advisory Board of the Harvard AIDS Institute, the National Board of Governors of Project Inform, and the Board of Directors of the Foundation for AIDS and Immune Research. He currently lives in Palm Springs,California.

-- By The Commonwealth Club's Media and Public Relations Staff

Monday, June 1, 2009

Michael Eric Dyson: We're not Post-Racial Yet


Georgetown University sociology professor Michael Eric Dyson made a return engagement at The Commonwealth Club on May 27, discussing issues of race, power, and politics today. How does having an African-American president change attitudes and hopes? Watch the video above to find out Dyson's thoughts.

Tauscher to Bring California Experience to Administration

On Thursday, May 28 East Bay Congresswoman Ellen Tauscher delivered her final farewell to some 200 Commonwealth Club members and guests at Lafayette’s Veterans Memorial Hall. Though she covered a lot of ground in a wide-ranging discussion of policy and her past, she opened her remarks with anecdotes about her daughter, Katherine, and her tremendous love for California.

If confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Tauscher, who served California’s 10th district for past 12 years, will be leaving her post to become senior adviser on arms control, nonproliferation and disarmament issues to President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton. In this position, Tauscher will take on national and global security relations, and international peacekeeping policy direction. In the conversation with Commonwealth Club CEO and President Dr. Gloria Duffy, herself a former nuclear arms negotiator for the Clinton administration, Tauscher told audience members she is committed to upholding The Constitution, and trusting her conscious as well as her constituents.

“The United States needs a new visibility,” said Tauscher, “to show that we can indeed lead the world in issues of security and arms negation.”

Though unable to discuss details of nuclear policy due to her pending Senate confirmation process, as the conversation turned to issues of nuclear nonproliferation, Tauscher shared her expertise and voiced her pledge to moving U.S. policy toward total nuclear disarmament.
She addressed a wide range of topics -- from U.S. national security policies to where Tauscher’s daughter was going to college, (Bucknell, to play Division I Volleyball). When asked about her future with the Obama administration, Tauscher described how she believes America “can have national security and civil rights at the same time.” When questioned about the state of our economy Tauscher emphasized, “The U.S. needs to get ‘back to basics’ and is in need of a complete overhaul, like putting Humpty Dumpty back together again.”

Regarding the 10th District, Tauscher expressed her admiration for what she called the “California lifestyle” and how she believes the state can be a leader in both alternative energies and transportation innovation for the rest of the country. Advocating for high-speed rail and enhanced carbon-free methods of transportation such as bicycles, Tauscher said that Californians “have more opportunity and more reason to get it right than anyone else.”

Tauscher, who is currently the chair of the Armed Services Strategic Forces subcommittee, has served as the representative of California’s 10th Congressional District since 1997. She has strengthened and expanded nonproliferation programs by creating the White House Office of the Coordinator on Nuclear Non-proliferation and a commission to study our nation’s role in the nuclear arms debate. Before running for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1996, Tauscher was an active fundraiser for the Democratic Party. She chaired Dianne Feinstein's successful 1992 and 1994 Senate campaigns. Previously, Tauscher worked as an investment banker and became a member of the New York Stock Exchange. The Newark, New Jersey, native earned her B.S. from Seton Hall University in 1974. She lives in Alamo, California.

– Written by The Commonwealth Club's Media and Public Relations Department