Saturday, July 29, 2017

Truth Under Attack

On May 16, 2017, former Surgeon General of the United States, Dr. Vivek H. Murthy addressed the Commonwealth Club of California to discuss a wide range of topics.

At about the halfway mark of his speech he talked about science being under threat.  His comments there seemed to me to be applicable to the issues of tolerance and respect for all peoples.  I have transcribed[1] some of his remarks below:[2]

Well, science is under threat.  And I would say more broadly that truth is under threat.  And if we ask the question “Why?” we can come up with any number of reasons, but I would rather focus on the solution, and the solution lies with each of us.  It depends on what we choose to speak up about.  It depends on what we choose to share with others.  And too often, in the face of misunderstanding and misinformation and myths, too many people remain silent, even though they know better.

Now, why do they do this?  Well, they do it often because they want to not engage in controversy. They don’t want to make someone else upset.  But this is a time more than ever for us, more than ever, it’s important for us to speak up for the truth and for science. 

And how do we do that?  Well, we do that by talking to the people in our lives and making sure they have the right information. 

(Dr. Murtha talked about the measles epidemic in Minnesota and how misinformation fed into that event.)

This is why it’s important to us to know that we need to be soldiers in the war against misinformation.  Each and every one of us. 

When I was Surgeon General, part of my responsibility was to get information to the public.  But I knew very well that there were many circumstances where the most effective messenger was not necessarily me, but sometimes a person’s best friend, or their mother, or their father.  Or their wife or husband.  And sometimes, their kids. 

And so each of us is someone’s friend, son or daughter ….  And you have the ability to educate and inform them.  And that’s what we have to do. We all have to be soldiers, fighting for truth in this day and age. Because what we’re battling against is a wave of misinformation.  And it’s not always malicious. But it spreads often quite easily, like on the internet.  And that which alarms people, tends to spread the fastest. 

And so, yes, we do have a situation where science and truth have been challenged.  But we will only overcome that if we each of us sees in our own roles and our own lives, a responsibility to stand up for and defend the truth, regardless of where the misinformation is coming from.  Regardless of whether it’s coming from our bosses, if it’s coming from high governmental officials, whether it’s coming from other prominent people in our community.  We have to stand up and defend the truth and speak up for reason.  Because when we stop doing that is when we abdicate our society.  It’s when we give in to forces that can ultimately lead us into darkness.  And I’m not prepared to do that because my parents came to this country 40 years ago because they saw a lot of light.  And I want to make sure that my son grows up in a country that also has a lot of light. 

[1] All errors in the transcript are mine alone, and I know there are some.  I trust they have not changed Dr. Murthy’s message in any significant way.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Accidental Courtesy

When I first read about this documentary available on Netflix – Accidental Courtesy:  Daryl Davis, Race & America – I was reminded of the illustration that my friend and mentor Richard Branton gave about trust:  You can’t make someone trust you.  They have to like you first.  You can’t make someone like you, they have to talk with you first.  But, you can start the conversation.[1]

Accidental Courtesy is the story of African American musician Daryl Davis and his avocation to search out and befriend members of the Ku Klux Klan.  He set out to find the answer to the question:  How can you hate me when you don’t even know me?

Davis has perhaps two dozen robes from Imperial Wizards and other Klan members and leaders who have left the Klan and given their robes to him.  As the film points out, not everyone is enamored with this method of outreach – from a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center to young black activists in Baltimore.  The film does not shy away from opposing views.

The movie starts with a quote from Sen. Robert F. Kennedy from 1966 in Cape Town, South Africa, that should be an inspiration to us all:

Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of these acts will be written the history of [each] generation.

Davis asks what good is it if we sit around with a group of like-minded people and criticize racism?  We’re preaching to the choir.  The value – and risk – comes from starting conversations with folks from the different perspectives.

Another pithy Davis quote from the film:  Fear can be overcome.  However, if fear becomes hate, that is harder to overcome.

Always keep the lines of communication open with your adversaries.  If you’re talking, you’re not fighting. 

We’re living in the space age, but some have the mindset of the stone age.

The film is interspersed with clips of Davis performing with some of the greats of his time:  Chuck Berry, especially.  It is an entertaining, thought-provoking, and often disturbing look at a critical issue of our time.

If you have access to Netflix, it’s well worth the watch.

The final quote from the film, from Abraham Lincoln: 

            Do I not destroy my enemies if I make them my friends?

[1] See the March 9 blog post.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

President Obama Remarks at Iftar Dinner

On August 13, 2010, President Obama hosted an iftar dinner at the White House.  Iftar is the evening meal when Muslims end their daily Ramadan fast at sunset.[1]  Below are excerpts from his remarks that evening.  The full speech is worth a read, and you can find it here.  

*  *  *  *  *

Here at the White House, we have a tradition of hosting iftars that goes back several years, just as we host Christmas parties and seders and Diwali celebrations.  And these events celebrate the role of faith in the lives of the American people. They remind us of the basic truth that we are all children of God, and we all draw strength and a sense of purpose from our beliefs.

These events are also an affirmation of who we are as Americans.  Our Founders understood that the best way to honor the place of faith in the lives of our people was to protect their freedom to practice religion.  In the Virginia Act of Establishing Religion Freedom, Thomas Jefferson wrote that “all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion.”  The First Amendment of our Constitution established the freedom of religion as the law of the land.  And that right has been upheld ever since.

Indeed, over the course of our history, religion has flourished within our borders precisely because Americans have had the right to worship as they choose -– including the right to believe in no religion at all.  And it is a testament to the wisdom of our Founders that America remains deeply religious -– a nation where the ability of peoples of different faiths to coexist peacefully and with mutual respect for one another stands in stark contrast to the religious conflict that persists elsewhere around the globe.

*  *  *  *  *

But let me be clear.  As a citizen, and as President, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country.  (Applause.)  And that includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in Lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances.  This is America.  And our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable.  The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country and that they will not be treated differently by their government is essential to who we are.  The writ of the Founders must endure.

*  *  *  *  *

In my inaugural address I said that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness.  We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus —- and non-believers.  We are shaped by every language and every culture, drawn from every end of this Earth.  And that diversity can bring difficult debates.  ….  But time and again, the American people have demonstrated that we can work through these issues, and stay true to our core values, and emerge stronger for it.  So it must be -– and will be -– today.

And tonight, we are reminded that Ramadan is a celebration of a faith known for great diversity.  And Ramadan is a reminder that Islam has always been a part of America.  The first Muslim ambassador to the United States, from Tunisia, was hosted by President Jefferson, who arranged a sunset dinner for his guest because it was Ramadan —- making it the first known iftar at the White House, more than 200 years ago.     

*  *  *  *  *

For in the end, we remain “one nation, under God, indivisible.”  And we can only achieve “liberty and justice for all” if we live by that one rule at the heart of every great religion, including Islam —- that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us.

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