Celebrating a victory for ethics and eloquence

For politically centrist, ethically minded people, who prefer serious debate to trolling and twitterstorms, these are challenging times. As Frank Bruni recently wrote in the New York Times (see link below), extremism and outrage is the order of the day. We need antidotes. Here’s one: would you like to see (and hear) an example of principled, eloquent, ideologically balanced political leadership in action? I urge you to watch this 20-min video of the speech delivered by New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu, marking the removal of the last of four statues originally erected to honor the leaders of the Confederacy and promote their awful and resoundingly defeated worldview. These monuments to inequality are finally gone. [Commentary continues after video]
New Orleans is one of the cities I have called home. I was partly educated there, I worked as a social worker in its French Quarter, I became a professional musician singing on the city’s stages (and sometimes on its streets). Later, I returned as a consultant to the region’s bi-partisan business leadership, and helped them develop a strategy for vision and action for sustainable development. The implementation of that strategy (2001-2005) was starting to work — until Katrina hit.
Regretfully, I have not been back to the city since (though I have wanted to go). But I have followed the rebuilding process, including its social rebuilding, and I have been deeply moved to watch the courage and bravery of the city’s political leadership in bringing down these monuments to racism, slavery, and the “cult of the lost cause.”
Mayor Landrieu’s speech has rightly been lifted up by Bruni and others as a timely landmark. For me, as someone who has lived in and loved New Orleans, and for a time attempted to serve the city as a “change agent” (I’ve written about this experience in my books), this speech also puts on display an inspiring example of true change leadership in action. Landrieu has held the vision, but he has also led a large, participatory process — city council, judicial system, public hearings, all of it. This success in overcoming one of the most reactionary pockets of resistance to progress in modern America (how does one honestly defend monuments to the champions of slavery?) is an inspiring case study worthy of continuing study, and support.
In these sometimes discouraging times, we need examples like this, to remind us of what true progress looks like. Watch, listen, and rejoice.
Also worth reading: NY Times article about Landrieu’s speech, by Frank Bruni:

“Do not forget”: A few terrible facts about torture

A few important facts that Americans must keep in mind as we head to the voting booth in 2016:

The Republican candidate has said publicly, “I would bring back waterboarding, and I’d bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding,” adding, in other appearances, “Don’t tell me it doesn’t work—torture works,” and “If it doesn’t work, they deserve it anyway, for what they’re doing to us.” (Links to sources provided below.) Regardless of what one thinks of this candidate, one should never forget that the candidate has strongly advocated torture.

The US is a party to at least four ratified international agreements against torture. Ordering the use of torture can be construed, in armed conflict situations, as a war crime.

Advocating torture is universally considered immoral. If elected, it means the candidate could also be ordering the women and men in national service to commit war crimes.

And it is clearly established that it doesn’t “work” as a way to get reliable and actionable intelligence. The US Senate concluded an in-depth study on “enhanced interrogation techniques” — a deplorable and Orwellian way to say “torture” — less than two years ago (Dec 2014). The results were published and are easily available, and they are summarized here:


These facts should not be drowned out during the rest of this campaign season’s deeply unfortunate noise.




The Scarlett Johansson-SodaStream-Oxfam Car Crash

When a car crash happens, it is very hard not to look at it. Consider the recent brouhaha over the actress Scarlett Johansson’s TV advertisement for the Israeli bubble-water-machine-plus-flavor-capsule company SodaStream, which was aired in connection with the US football extravaganza known as the Super Bowl, and led to her rupture with the UK-based humanitarian charity Oxfam. For me, this was a multi-vehicle collision. It was impossible not to stare at it (via the Internet), despite — or perhaps because of — the injuries experienced by everyone involved, including innocent bystanders. (Click to read the news story on BBC)

In fact the incident involved not just a collision of famous personalities and conflicting interests. It provided a rare moment where great issues and challenges on the world stage — issues that normally seem overwhelmingly large and abstract — came together in a small, human-scale drama that nearly everyone could relate to.

Let’s start with the players (or drivers, I want to keep the car-crash metaphor going). Scarlett Johansson is, well, a Hollywood phenomenon, the closest thing our generation has produced to Marilyn Monroe, but with a higher IQ and — judging from her projections in the media — a better grip her business affairs. As an ambassador for Oxfam, she put her beauty, allure, and intelligence to work for a humanitarian cause. As a spokesperson for SodaStream, however, she put those same qualities to work on the opposite side of a hard-drawn line in the sand, in the eyes of her other employer Oxfam, because SodaStream has a factory in the occupied West Bank.

Oxfam objected. The dispute went public. Acrimony ensued. Johansson quit Oxfam. Tweets and blogs roared.

Let’s do a quick inventory of the (often very loaded) issues that are refracted through this story:

  • The Israeli-Palestinian conflict
  • The role of celebrity spokespeople in promoting humanitarian causes
  • The conflict between commercial interests and humanitarian causes
  • The dominant role of advertising in shaping the public discourse
  • The complicated relationship between “corporate social responsibility” activities (SodaStream employs a lot of Palestinians and makes a big point of that) and a company’s core business operations
  • The link between sugary soft drinks and health problems like diabetes and obesity (SodaStream also makes a big point of being “healthier” than, say, Coke)
  • The power of social media to amplify mole hills into mountains

… and let’s not forget the intersection where this crash occurred:  the Super Bowl, America’s biggest sporting event, where TV ads become legendary (remember the Apple Mac ad of 1984?) and “wardrobe malfunctions” can ripple around the world (do I need to remind you what I’m talking about?).

I’m not sure what, exactly, to make of this crash. It appears to me that everybody loses: Johansson’s star looks a bit tarnished in the media, because she appears to have chosen paycheck over principles. Regardless of what you think of SodaStream, as a product or as a company, it is evident that they got some inconvenient light shone on a glaringly controversial fact about their business — a fact that had somehow avoided attracting much attention before. Their CEO complained that any resulting loss of business could cause loss of Palestinian (and Israeli) jobs, and there could easily be some truth in that: a laid off Palestinian employee counts as an “innocent bystander” in my view, hit by the squealing tires and crunching metal of the car crash.

Then there is Oxfam. Well, maybe Oxfam’s little Prius comes away with scratches, compared to Johansson’s dented BMW limousine. Oxfam did lose her as an ambassador, and maybe lost a few lovers of SodaStream as donors.

My guess is that the net effect on the bottom line of everybody involved will be negative … but I could be totally wrong. Maybe in this weirdly hyped up social media world, everybody wins. “There’s no such thing as bad publicity,” and everyone’s gotten plenty of it. Scarlett’s sexy sipping video goes viral (raises her asking price for an ad), more people hear about SodaStream’s product (look, I just told you about it!), donations flow into Oxfam from their core donors in support of their principled stand (and resulting “sacrifice” of mega-celebrity endorsement) …

Ah, yes, I did get this all wrong. This is going to generate cash flow. It’s going to add positively to the GDPs of all the affected countries.

Just as real car crashes do.

And the Super Bowl? Well, it just is what it is: the modern day American Circus Maximus, where shocking and exciting things can be expected to happen. And since my former US home city of Seattle actually won the big game, I don’t feel like expressing too much cynicism about that. (Go Seahawks!)

Actually, my point is not to be cynical at all. I just found the moment fascinating, multi-faceted, instructive, worth reflecting about. When fast-moving cars plow through intersections from different directions, accidents occur.

And it’s hard not to look.

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